Why Did the Pentagon Take So Long to Admit it Bombed a Doctors Without Borders Hospital?

The bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz illustrates everything that's going wrong in Afghanistan.
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The bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz illustrates everything that's going wrong in Afghanistan.

On Sunday morning Afghan time, a U.S. airstrike hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan — a city that's become a hot point as Taliban and Afghan forces vie for control. The hospital, a "known structure" — i.e. one that was clearly identified as a hospital, ergo a noncombatant facility — was subjected to a sustained bombardment that killed 22 people, including medical personnel. 

Just days before, hospital staff had been providing care even as bullets were flying "through the roof of the intensive care unit." All of the staff and patients killed were Afghan – Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) draws heavily from local clinical providers in its operations. Like many Afghans since the start of the war, people doing their best to help their country were killed by a failure of caution on the part of U.S. forces. 

The incident would have been horrific enough: According to AFP, "Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said [22] people were killed, some of whom burned to death in their beds as the bombardment continued for more than an hour, even after US and Afghan authorities were informed the hospital had been hit."

It didn't stop there, however, because almost as soon as the airstrike hit the hospital, a delicate game of "pass the blame" began, with the United States attempting to evade responsibility for the incident. It took until Monday morning for U.S. officials to come clean about their involvement — after Doctors Without Borders had left Kunduz, claiming the bombing was a war crime, and after the entire international community had expressed outrage. 

MSF is understandably furious with the inconsistencies from story to story on the subject, and it's demanding a full investigation.

The game of passive voice — as Glenn Greenwald put it at the Intercept, "Some airstrike, traveling around on its own like a lost tourist, ran into a hospital in Afghanistan" — illustrated how firmly the Pentagon wanted to avoid responsibility for what may well become a serious international incident. It was also a testimony to the long, bitter war the United States is fighting in the Middle East. In the words of a great military tactician: Never get involved in a land war in Asia. 

What's most repulsive is that it wasn't just the U.S. government that attempted to glide over the fact that it was U.S. materiel that destroyed the facility: U.S. media, the New York Times and CNN in particular, were also complicit in spinning the story. As were outlets like CBS: "It remains unclear exactly who bombed the hospital..."

It is the responsibility of the media to report on news events. Almost immediately, it was clear that the United States destroyed the MSF hospital, given that the U.S. was engaged in military operations in Kunduz at the time. Some media outlets decisively stated this from the start, including the generally conservative Wall Street Journal, which commented that: "U.S. Airstrike Kills 19 at Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan." (The death toll was later updated.)

Even papers that opted to be more cautious with their headlines and coverage still clearly pointed the finger at the most obvious culprit: The U.S., as in the case of NBC, which called it an "apparent U.S. strike." (The Washington Post used similar language.) More left-leaning publications were as decisive as the Wall Street Journal. Let that sink in for a moment.

Still, papers like the Times clung to the shreds of their story. 

The media narrative presented by the government and the papers that apparently felt it wasn't necessary to challenge the Pentagon's story was this: The Pentagon happened to be conducting operations in the area and a hospital happened to be struck. (Passive voice.) No, wait, there was a threat to American forces from Taliban fighters, so officers called in an air strike. No, actually, U.S. officials ordered an airstrike in response to a request for mutual aid from Afghan forces. Oh, no, Taliban fighters were holed up in the MSF hospital — something MSF personnel strongly contest, noting that the organization is nonpartisan and focused on providing medical care, not shelter for combatants. 

So, first the airstrike was a response to a military threat to U.S. troops. Then, when it was clear that the international community was furious, it became the Afghan government's fault. Who knows who will be to blame next! The U.S. has helpfully volunteered its services as an "investigator," though NATO is stepping in to run an evaluation of the situation, because as a general rule you don't let accused criminals run investigations into their own actions. Though the airstrike was clearly a mistake, that doesn't mean the U.S. shouldn't be held accountable. The UN thinks the bombing may be criminal in nature, pending investigation into the specifics of the circumstances.

Here's what no one would openly say: U.S. explosives, dropped by U.S. personnel, hit a hospital, killing 12 doctors and at least 10 patients, including children. Despite the fact that hospital personnel notified Afghan and U.S. forces about being caught in the airstrike, phoning Washington and Kabul to beg for intervention, officers did not call it off. 

This was spun by the Pentagon as "collateral damage." And the unfortunate truth of the matter is that war is messy, and dirty, and horrific, and that means that civilians are bombed, and they are killed. Airstrikes are supposed to draw upon a very high degree of precision, though, and hospitals are forbidden territory under international law. If hospital personnel say they are being bombed, that means that something is going wrong with guidance and targeting systems, and the military needs to pull back and retarget. 

Period. 

And then the military needs to openly admit from the start that it bombed a hospital and killed innocent people. 

Which it did not. 

In a statement on Monday, General John Campbell (commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan) said "several innocent civilians were accidentally struck." 22 dead and another 37 wounded seems like rather a bit more than "several." The White House backed the military up, with spokesman Josh Earnest insisting (earnestly?) that the U.S. goes to extreme lengths to avoid civilian casualties. 

Again, mistakes happen. They are terrible and awful. It's one reason why hospitals clearly identify themselves, so that they are not targeted in military operations. And it's one reason why armed forces are supposed to listen when people report that a hospital is under fire — instead of subjecting the facility to such a sustained barrage that staff cannot even evacuate patients. 

What happened in Kunduz was a travesty. It was an avoidable wartime horror. It was also something that could have been swiftly addressed had the Pentagon been willing to step up, accept responsibility, and offer any and all mutual aid needed by MSF. The widely respected worldwide medical nonprofit puts itself on the frontlines of military conflicts and serious disease outbreaks in every corner of the globe, and in the case of the Kunduz facility, it was the only primary care provider for major war-related trauma in Northeastern Afghanistan. Now, the group has withdrawn, deeming it too unsafe to continue to providing care, and civilians are the people who will suffer. 

The use of airstrikes in Afghanistan is already a subject of controversy, and incidents like this are why. Aerial warfare can come at a high cost for civilians even with careful targeting and coordination from coalition forces. Incident after incident in Afghanistan has demonstrated that American forces should not be utilizing airstrikes — the nation has really become the posterchild for everything that's wrong with drone warfare in particular. 

Kunduz lost a hospital and 22 people lost their lives, but unless the rest of the world subjects the United States to substantial scrutiny over this, nothing about the way we make war will change — and no one higher up will question whether we should be making war at all. 

Photos: Amy Felce (Flickr/CC)