The U.S. air strike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Oct. 3 that left 22 civilians dead — 12 Medecins Sans Frontieres staff and 10 patients, including three children — should be fully investigated, preferably by an independent party.
According to the MSF, also called Doctors Without Borders, the Afghan and coalition troops had the exact GPS coordinates of the hospital, which has been operating for four years. MSF general director Christopher Stokes said that the air strike continued even after the hospital frantically phoned Afghan and U.S. forces informing them that they were being attacked. The international humanitarian organization also said that the hospital’s main building housing the intensive care unit and emergency rooms were hit almost every 15 minutes for more than an hour. Some 105 patients and their caregivers, as well as more than 80 MSF staff, were at the hospital when the air strike took place.
On Saturday, the U.S. military said that an air strike took place in Kunduz that resulted in “collateral damage” to a nearby medical facility. This would have meant that the hospital was hit incidentally to the intended target. The air strike was launched at the request of American special operations forces in the vicinity of the hospital as they came under fire, the U.S. military said.
It changed its position, however, on Monday with Army Gen. John Campbell, the top-U.S. commander in Afghanistan, telling reporters that the Afghan forces called in a U.S. air strike, saying that they were under fire from enemy positions. U.S. forces were not under direct fire in the incident and the air strike had not been called on their behalf, Campbell said.
MSF which had earlier called for a “full and transparent” investigation by an independent international body, saying the attack was a war crime, noted the shift in the U.S. military’s position and accused the U.S. of trying to shift responsibility onto Afghan forces. Afghan authorities had earlier said that Taliban insurgents were using the hospital to launch attacks against Afghan forces, which led the MSF to characterize the attack as a war crime — in this case a deliberate attack on a hospital.
While the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner said an air strike against a hospital could amount to a war crime and called for an independent inquiry, the United Nations said that it would await the results of U.S., NATO, and Afghan investigations into the air strike before deciding on its position on an independent probe. The U.S. said that the military would conduct its own investigation, as would NATO. There would also be a joint U.S. and Afghan probe. It appears that the world will have to wait patiently, hoping that the U.S. military will conduct a full and transparent investigation, as promised by U.S. President Barack Obama.
At the same time, the MSF’s questioning of the ability of the U.S. military — a party responsible for the air strike — to investigate itself is justified. Campbell, in fact, did not rule out the possibility of an independent probe, promising coordination if further investigations are necessary. An investigation by an independent body may indeed be necessary even if the parties involved promise full accounting of the attack.
The medical aid group has shut down its operations in Kunduz, leaving the people in the war-torn city without a major medical facility that can treat war injuries. Ultimately, the innocent civilians are the ones who will suffer the most without a hospital. It is imperative, therefore, that there be a thorough investigation into the deadly air strike, that those responsible are held to account, and, most importantly, measures are taken to make sure such incidents are not repeated.