United States special operations forces – not their Afghan allies – called in the deadly airstrike on the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, the US commander conceded this week.
Shortly before General John Campbell, the commander of the US and Nato war in Afghanistan, testified to a Senate panel, the president of MSF (also known as Doctors Without Borders) – said the US and Afghanistan had made an “admission of a war crime”.
Shifting the US account of last Saturday’s airstrike for the fourth time in as many days, Campbell reiterated Afghan forces had requested US air cover after a “tenacious fight” to retake the northern city of Kunduz from the Taliban.
But, modifying the account he gave at a press conference on Monday, Campbell said those Afghan forces hadn’t directly communicated with the US pilots of an AC-130 gunship flying overhead.
“Even though the Afghans request that support, it still has to go through a rigorous US procedure to enable fires to go on the ground. We had a special operations unit that was in close vicinity that was talking to the aircraft that delivered those fires,” Campbell told the Senate armed services committee on Tuesday.
The airstrike on the hospital is among the worst and most visible cases of civilian deaths caused by US forces during the 14-year Afghanistan war that US President Barack Obama recently declared was all but over. It killed 12 MSF staff and 10 patients who had sought medical treatment after the Taliban overran Kunduz last weekend. Three children died in the airstrike that came in multiple waves and burned patients alive in their beds.
MSF denounced Campbell’s press conference as an attempt to shift blame to the Afghans.
“The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition,” said its director general, Christopher Stokes.
Campbell did not explain whether the procedures to launch the airstrike took into account the GPS co-ordinates of the MSF field hospital, which the organisation’s president, Joanne Liu, said were “regularly shared” with US, coalition and Afghan military officers and civilian officials, “as recently as September 29”. Low-flying AC-130 gunships, typically rely on a pilot visually identifying a target.
It is also unclear where the US special operations forces were relative to the fighting, but Campbell has said that US units were “not directly engaged in the fighting”.
But Jason Cone, MSF’s US executive director, said Campbell’s shifting story underscored the need for an independent inquiry.
“They are now back to talking about a ‘mistake’. A mistake that lasted for more than an hour, despite the fact that the location of the hospital was well known to them and that they were informed during the airstrike that it was a hospital being hit. All this confusion just underlines once again the crucial need for an independent investigation into how a major hospital, full of patients and MSF staff, could be repeatedly bombed.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015