When news first broke of the U.S. airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, the response from the U.S. military was predictable and familiar. It was all just a big, terrible mistake, the official statement suggested: An airstrike it carried out in Kunduz “may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.” Oops: our bad. Fog of war, errant bombs, and all that.
This obfuscation is the standard tactic the U.S. and Israel both use whenever they blow up civilian structures and slaughter large numbers of innocent people with airstrikes. Citizens of both countries are well-trained — like some tough, war-weary, cigar-chomping general — to reflexively spout the phrase “collateral damage,” which lets them forget about the whole thing and sleep soundly, telling themselves that these sorts of innocent little mistakes are inevitable even among the noblest and most well-intentioned war fighters, such as their own governments. The phrase itself is beautifully technocratic: It requires no awareness of how many lives get extinguished, let alone acceptance of culpability. Just invoke that phrase and throw enough doubt on what happened in the first 48 hours and the media will quickly lose interest.
But there’s something significantly different about this incident that has caused this “mistake” claim to fail. Usually, the only voices protesting or challenging the claims of the U.S. military are the foreign, non-Western victims who live in the cities and villages where the bombs fall. Those are easily ignored, or dismissed as either ignorant or dishonest. Those voices barely find their way into U.S. news stories, and when they do, they are steamrolled by the official and/or anonymous claims of the U.S. military, which are typically treated by U.S. media outlets as unassailable authority.
In this case, though, the U.S. military bombed the hospital of an organization — Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) — run by Western-based physicians and other medical care professionals. They are not so easily ignored. Doctors who travel to dangerous war zones to treat injured human beings are regarded as noble and trustworthy. They’re difficult to marginalize and demonize. They give compelling, articulate interviews in English to U.S. media outlets. They are heard, and listened to.
MSF has used this platform, unapologetically and aggressively. Its staff are clearly infuriated by the attack on their hospital and the deaths of their colleagues and patients. From the start, they have signaled an unwillingness to be shunted away with the usual “collateral damage” banalities and, more important, have refused to let the U.S. military and its allies get away with spouting obvious falsehoods. They want real answers. As The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman put it last night: “MSF’s been going incredibly hard, challenging every US/Afgh claim made about hospital bombing.”
In particular, MSF quickly publicized numerous facts that cast serious doubt on the original U.S. claim that the strike on the hospital was just an accident. To begin with, the organization had repeatedly advised the U.S. military of the exact GPS coordinates of the hospital. It did so most recently on September 29, just five days before the strike. Beyond that, MSF personnel at the facility “frantically” called U.S. military officials during the strike to advise them that the hospital was being hit and to plead with them to stop, but the strikes continued in a “sustained” manner for 30 more minutes. Finally, MSF yesterday said this:
All of these facts make it extremely difficult — even for U.S. media outlets — to sell the “accident” story. At least as likely is that the hospital was deliberately targeted, chosen either by Afghan military officials who fed the coordinates to their U.S. military allies and/or by the U.S. military itself.
Even cynical critics of the U.S. have a hard time believing that the U.S. military would deliberately target a hospital with an airstrike (despite how many times the U.S. has destroyed hospitals with airstrikes). But in this case, there is long-standing tension between the Afghan military and this specific MSF hospital, grounded in the fact that MSF — true to its name — treats all wounded human beings without first determining on which side they fight. That it provides medical treatment to wounded civilians and Taliban fighters alike has made it a target before.
In July — just three months ago — Reuters reported that Afghan special forces “raided” this exact MSF hospital in Kunduz, claiming an al Qaeda member was a patient. This raid infuriated MSF staff:
The French aid group said its hospital was temporarily closed to new patients after armed soldiers had entered and behaved violently towards staff.
“This incident demonstrates a serious lack of respect for the medical mission, which is safeguarded under international humanitarian law,” MSF said in a statement.
A staff member who works for the aid group said, “The foreign doctors tried to stop the Afghan Special Operations guys, but they went in anyway, searching the hospital.”
The U.S. had previously targeted a hospital in a similar manner: “In 2009, a Swedish aid group accused U.S. forces of violating humanitarian principles by raiding a hospital in Wardak province, west of Kabul.”
News accounts of this weekend’s U.S. airstrike on that same hospital hinted cryptically at the hostility from the Afghan military. The first NYT story on the strike — while obscuring who carried it out — noted deep into the article that “the hospital treated the wounded from all sides of the conflict, a policy that has long irked Afghan security forces.” Al Jazeera similarly alluded to this tension, noting that “a caretaker at the hospital, who was severely injured in the airstrike, told Al Jazeera that [the] clinic’s medical staff did not favor any side of the conflict. ‘We are here to help and treat civilians,’ Abdul Manar said.”
As a result of all of this, there is now a radical shift in the story being told about this strike. No longer is it being depicted as some terrible accident of a wayward bomb. Instead, the predominant narrative from U.S. sources and their Afghan allies is that this attack was justified because the Taliban were using the hospital as a “base.”
Fox News yesterday, citing anonymous “defense officials,” said that while they “‘regret the loss’ of innocent life, they say the incident could have been avoided if the Taliban had not used the hospital as a base, and the civilians there as human shields.” In its first article on the attack, the Washington Post also previewed this defense, quoting a “spokesman for the Afghan army’s 209th Corps in northern Afghanistan” as saying that “Taliban fighters are now hiding in ‘people’s houses, mosques and hospitals using civilians as human shields.'” AP yesterday actually claimed that it looked at a video and saw weaponry in the hospital’s windows, only to delete that claim with this correction:
The New York Times today — in a story ostensibly about the impact of the hospital’s destruction on area residents — printed paragraphs from anonymous officials justifying this strike, saying that “there was heavy gunfire in the area around the hospital at the time of the airstrike, and that initial reports indicated that the Americans and Afghans on the ground near the hospital could not safely pull back without being dangerously exposed. American forces on the ground then called for air support, senior officials said.” The Times also claimed that “many residents of Kunduz, as well as people in Kabul, seemed willing to believe the accusations of some Afghan officials that there were Taliban fighters in the hospital shooting at American troops.” And this:
Still, some Afghan officials continued to suggest that the attack was justified. “I know that there were civilian casualties in the hospital, but a lot of senior Taliban were also killed,” said Abdul Wadud Paiman, a member of Parliament from Kunduz.
So now we’re into full-on justification mode: Yes, we did it; yes, we did it on purpose; and we’re not sorry because we were right to do so since we think some Taliban fighters were at the hospital, perhaps even shooting at us. In response to the emergence of this justification claim, MSF expressed the exact level of revulsion appropriate (emphasis added):
MSF is disgusted by the recent statements coming from some Afghanistan government authorities justifying the attack on its hospital in Kunduz. These statements imply that Afghan and U.S. forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present.
This amounts to an admission of a war crime. This utterly contradicts the initial attempts of the U.S. government to minimize the attack as ‘collateral damage.’
There can be no justification for this abhorrent attack on our hospital that resulted in the deaths of MSF staff as they worked and patients as they lay in their beds. MSF reiterates its demand for a full transparent and independent international investigation.
From the start, MSF made clear that none of its staff at the hospital heard or saw Taliban fighters engaging U.S. or Afghan forces:
But even if there were, only the most savage barbarians would decide that it’s justified to raze a hospital filled with doctors, nurses, and patients to the ground. Yet mounting evidence suggests that this is exactly what the U.S. military did — either because it chose to do so or because its Afghan allies fed the military the coordinates of this hospital, which they have long disliked. As a result, we now have U.S. and Afghan officials expressly justifying the consummate war crime: deliberately attacking a hospital filled with doctors, nurses, and wounded patients. And whatever else is true, the story of what happened here has been changing rapidly as facts emerge proving the initial claims to be false.
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Just as this article was being published, NBC News published a report making clear that even the latest claims from the U.S. and Afghan governments are now falling apart. The Pentagon’s top four-star commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, now claims that “local Afghans forces asked for air support and U.S. forces were not under direct fire just prior to the U.S. bombardment” of the hospital. As NBC notes, this directly contradicts prior claims: “The Pentagon had previously said U.S. troops were under direct fire.”
UPDATE: Responding to the above-referenced admission, MSF has issued this statement:
Today the U.S. government has admitted that it was their airstrike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff. Their description of the attack keeps changing — from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government. The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical.
The U.S. seems to have picked the wrong group this time to attack from the air.