The recent bombing by US warplanes of a Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Afghanistan only underlines, yet again, that belligerents do not have the right to destroy humanitarian havens just because it serves their purposes. They should also be held accountable. Edward Girardet, who has covered Afghanistan’s 37-year war since October, 1979, explores why the Kunduz incident may not simply be brushed under the carpet.
Geneva — When the US military first described its attack on the Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz on 3 October, 2015 killing 22 and injuring 30 medical personnel and patients as unfortunate “collateral damage” it was ignoring its responsibility under the Geneva Conventions not to target civilians in time of war.
The US administration then went on to give at least three more versions as to what had happened. Whether a ‘mistake’ as it now maintains or a deliberate bombing — as MSF, which won the 1999 Nobel Peace prize, and others argue — the tragedy demonstrates either exceptionally poor on-the-ground intelligence, or a clear decision to undertake at least five air assaults on a clearly identifiable and well-known medical complex.
The ‘incompetence explanation’ is indeed a possibility. This despite all the technological capabilities that the US military has at its disposal ranging from satellite analysis to highly accurate or ‘surgical’ precision bombing. The United States has a long history of shoddy intelligence in Afghanistan, but decision-makers have also shown an equally historic predeliction to ignore what those intelligence officers are telling them.
This was certainly the case during the 1980s, when the Central Intelligence Agency backed Afghan extremists against the advice not only of well-informed American diplomats, but also experienced aid workers and journalists. Many of these US-backed radicals, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatayar or Jallauddin Haqqani, later went on to become Taliban, Haqqani Network, al Qaeda and now ISIS operatives. Numerous fighters currently involved with the Taliban in Kunduz, where Hekmatyar is originally from, are supporters of his Hezb-e-Islami (Islamic Party) faction.
It was the same during NATO’s post-2001 period. Various poor intelligence assessments led to disasters, such as a 2008 attack by US forces on a wedding party in Deh Bala that reportedly killed 47 civilians. Faulty intelligence also enabled al-Qaeda militants to infiltrate the Camp Chapman Forward Operating base in eastern Afghanistan and kill 10 people, including six CIA agents.
The Kunduz bombing, however, is unlikely to have been the result of poor intelligence. That is, unless Washington is prepared to admit that its information system is incompetent. Anyone who has lived in or travelled to Kunduz knows the MSF hospital, which was set up four years ago. Until its destruction, it was the only serious health facility in the city. It recorded 6,000 surgeries and 20,000 consultations in 2014. The hospital is also clearly marked on any Google map or satellite overview of this northern provincial capital. My teenage son found it in less than half a minute.
So, unless the five assaults were overshots intended for another target, the only answer is that the attack was deliberate. But this opens a whole new series of doors regarding legal responsibility and the respect for international humanitarian law.
Both US and Afghan government officials initially indicated that Taliban were occupying the compound. However, the fact that armed or unarmed Taliban may, or may not have been present within the walled precincts of the hospital cannot justify such an attack. As a journalist who has visited MSF and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) facilities in numerous war zones ranging from Somalia to Sri Lanka, both organizations have strict rules against anyone carrying weapons into their humanitarian enclaves, even when bringing in injured. All guns have to be left outside.
According to MSF sources, none of their personnel who survived the attack reported armed fighters present inside the hospital. Without doubt, there were wounded Taliban. Doctors, however, are obliged to treat all victims, regardless of whether they are civilian or belligerent. It’s not just basic decency. It is also part of the Geneva Conventions and the Hippocratic Oath.
Through its disparaging reference to “collateral damage”, the US military was seeking to deny responsibility for inflicting civilian casualties. This is also a form of pre-emption for what many believe may be a war crime under the international humanitarian law. Even President Barack Obama’s apology by phone to MSF president Dr. Joanne Liu, which was evidently heart-felt but little more, does not in any way excuse the US military’s blatant violation of the Conventions designed to inject some humanitarian rules into situations where the temptation to commit atrocities is strong. As Liu herself noted: “We appreciate the apology but it is unacceptable to describe the bombing as a mistake.”
Since opening its first clinic shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, MSF’s humanitarian history in this war-ridden country has proved a hazardous one. This is not the first time that a conventional army has destroyed one of its facilities. During the early 1980s, when the ‘French doctors’, as they were then known, were operating clandestinely inside guerrilla-controlled zones, Soviet aircraft bombed a health centre in the northern part of the country with a red cross painted on its roof.
The irony is that MSF had only just received ICRC permission to use the emblem given that there was considerable fighting in the area between Red Army forces and the mujahideen, or holy warriors, as Afghan resistance fighters called themselves.
At the same time, the ICRC had warned MSF that the emblem might only serve as a target. This is because the Swiss-based ICRC, which has been granted the responsibility of safeguarding the Geneva Conventions by the international community, normally goes through time-consuming negotiations with all sides to ensure respect for its on-the-ground humanitarian activities in a war zone. MSF, on the other hand, was a little NGO that had chosen to operate – illegally from the Moscow and Kabul point of view – among civilians in areas held by the resistance.
Throughout the 1980s, the Soviets also sought to eliminate other clandestine health centres run by foreign NGOs inside Afghanistan. Or they tried to kill, capture or force out local and foreign relief volunteers working among crisis-affected populations.
MSF, which had worked for 24 years in Afghanistan throughout the Soviet occupation, the civil war of the early 1990s and during the Taliban period of the late 1990s, was eventually forced to pull out completely in the summer of 2004. This was when unidentified gunmen mowed down one of their medical teams driving a clearly-marked vehicle, killing five MSF workers. The NATO-backed Kabul government immediately blamed the Taliban. It later became clear, however, that a local government security chief was responsible. The Afghan authorities never apologized nor brought those responsible to justice.
In protest. MSF decided to leave. After a five-year hiatus, MSF returned in October, 2009 re-establishing health centres in eastern and southern parts of the country. The opening of the Kunduz hospital was part of this re-engagement by the international medical charity.
There is little doubt that alongside the ICRC, MSF ranks as one of the best known humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan, working among both pro-regime and insurgent forces. From my contacts in Afghanistan, I know the bombing has provoked widespread discussion among ordinary Afghans as to why the Americans did it. For Dr. Liu, such atrocities by belligerents against civilian targets world-wide have gone far enough. “Even war has rules,” she maintains.
MSF has now called for an investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to determine what happened and whether this constitutes a crime of war. This Commission, which has never been used, was established in the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Convention to specifically investigate violations under international humanitarian law. Both the ICRC, which would oversee the initiative, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights are in favour.
But it will require full cooperation by the US and Afghan governments. Given past precedents, it would seem unlikely that Washington will ever consent to have an outside body investigate its own military. Or to determine that its soldiers have committed a war crime.
A former foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, journalist and writer Edward Girardet is author of Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan. He is also co-editor of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan.