The U.S. Defense Secretary described the bombing of a Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan as “confused and complicated” but the heads of several prominent international development organizations are demanding accountability. Twenty-two people were killed when U.S. planes bombed the hospital late Saturday night.
“This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal,” U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said. “[I]f established as deliberate in a court of law an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime.”
On Monday, U.S. military officials admitted to carrying out the airstrikes that killed 12 MSF staff members and 10 patients, but General John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told reporters that Afghan troops on the ground called for the operation in Kunduz, a city which had been besieged by Taliban fighters for more than a week.
“Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. air forces,” Campbell said. “An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck,” Campbell said.
Meinie Nicolai, president of MSF, decried the notion that the hospital was “collateral damage” as the U.S. military originally claimed.
“This attack is abhorrent and a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” Meinie Nicolai, MSF President said in a statement. “We demand total transparency from Coalition forces. We cannot accept that this horrific loss of life will simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage.’”
MSF noted that it provided its GPS coordinates to Coalition and Afghan forces just days before the attack in order to prevent a strike on its facilities. It has a routine policy of communicating its position to all parties of a conflict.
The hospital seems to have been the target of the attack, according to MSF staff, who noted that surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched.
Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights, an organization which documents attacks on medical workers around the world, noted that the attack could be direct violation of international standards on war.
“’Collateral damage’ is not an acceptable excuse for what by all accounts seems to be a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” Sirkin said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “Targeting a hospital is a war crime and warring parties are obligated to take every measure possible to avoid attacking health facilities.”
Even with protections for hospitals in international law, the bombing can only be considered a war crime if it was carried out deliberately, Ken Gude, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress in an interview. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center for American Progress.)
“Hospitals don’t enjoy complete protection, however, as if the damage or potential damage to a hospital is assessed to be not excessive in comparison to the military advantages obtained by a nearby legitimate attack, collateral damage to the hospital is not unlawful,” he said. “So for the Kunduz attack to be a war crime, it would either have to be shown to be a deliberate attack on the hospital, or that U.S. military did not take sufficient care to protect the hospital from excessive harm incidental to a legitimate military objective.”
Making such an assessment will take time, especially as Afghan and Taliban forces continue to battle for control of the city of Kunduz.
“We simply don’t know the facts well enough to assess whether the Kunduz attack will ultimately be determined to be a war crime, Gude said. “It is very likely that the attack on the hospital was the result of an accident or mistake, as the U.S. military now claim.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter promised to have a full and transparent investigation of the hospital bombing as soon as soon as possible.
“It may take some time to get the facts, but we will get the facts,” he told reporters on Sunday. “There will be accountability as always in these incidents, if that is required.”
For many who lost relatives in the attack, however, the U.S. has a lot to answer to.
“Why did the US blow up the whole hospital?” said an Afghan man named Nasratullah, whose 25-year old cousin Akbar was among the doctors killed. “We know that the Americans are very clever. If they can target a single person in a car from their planes, why did they have to blow up the whole building?”