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Bombing a hospital: how and why..?

October 5, 2015

Summary: A US airstrike levelled a Kunduz hospital, killed civilians and aid workers. Information does not yet allow a full judgement on the “how and why” but it seems less likely the Taliban were a prime cause. Human errors and the stresses of battle in various forms may have fatally complicated the communication between Afghan security forces on the ground and US air controllers.

For some days and weeks now, a battle for control of Kunduz city, in north-eastern Afghanistan, has ebbed and flowed, with the population stuck in the middle, fleeing when they can, or hunkering down in shelter where they must.  Taliban and government forces have grappled inconclusively, plant flags and taking selfies in the various squares and roundabouts of the city’s centre.

In the small hours of last Saturday morning, a US flown and controlled aircraft – likely an AC-130 “Spectre” gunship of some variety – opened fired on the southern-western suburbs of Kunduz city over the period of an hour.  The action appears to have been at the request of embattled Afghan security forces engaged in combat against Taliban fighters in the area.

NYT, General Campbell said that Afghan forces had come under fire near the hospital and then called for help.

The gunship’s fire power probably included a couple of 25-40mm chain guns and a rapid firing 105mm howitzer. These are designed to fire from the same side of the aircraft while it slowly circles its target. The impact of the strike on the target was devastating. And in the wrong place.

hospital, kunduz, msf, fire damage

Final casualty figures will likely become clearer in the days to come, but it seems as if something in the vicinity of 22 hospital workers and patients, including children died in the attacks and subsequent fires that destroyed many of the buildings. Medecin Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) lost a number of their own staff in the attack. The NGO’s Director has since gone on to explicitly describe the event as a war crime, noting that the hospital’s GPS coordinates had been transmitted to all parties of the conflict.  US official military sources seemed to acknowledge some level of culpability by stating that an air strike had gone astray.

NPR, 4 Oct: MSF’s General Director Christopher Stokes, saying in a statement that the group operates “[under] the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed,” insisted that anything less than a fully independent probe of the incident would be unacceptable.

“Relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient,” Stokes said.

“We reiterate that the main hospital building, where medical personnel were caring for patients, was repeatedly and very precisely hit during each aerial raid, while the rest of the compound was left mostly untouched. We condemn this attack, which constitutes a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” he said.

In an interview on Sunday’s Weekend All Things Considered, MSF Executive Director Jason Cone said it has been the “darkest couple of days in our organization’s history.”

Speaking with WATC host Michel Martin, Cone reiterated Stokes’ description of the attack as “a war crime.”

MSF have called for an independent and transparent investigation. The Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, has called for an investigation. US President, Barack Obama has said the same.

The Taliban have been quick to capitalise, highlighting “Barbaric American forces bomb civilian hospital in Kunduz” on their website, declaring that no Taliban fighters were in the hospital, something that the slightly more reliable MSF have also stated. The Russian government, recently pursuing its own bombing campaign against various anti-Assad forces in Syria, is also condemning the US attack – and greatly tempting fate in so doing.

There have been many civilian casualty incidents since the conflict began in 2001. Suicide bombings are perhaps the most indiscriminate of all but a misdirected air strike can be more devastating.

But it is a war crime to deliberately target hospitals, schools or places of worship.

There seem to be a handful of plausible explanations for this tragedy:

  1. The US aircraft hit the hospital in error when they were aiming at Taliban forces in the area – very possible.
  2. The Taliban were firing from the hospital and US/Afghan forces collaborated to neutralise this target – seems less likely.
  3. Targeting error on the Afghan side – they transmitted bad or misleading information to US tactical controllers who relayed this flawed targeting information to the aircraft. Possible.
  4. Targeting error on the US side – failure to distribute, circulate or otherwise accurately employ GPS coordinates given to them, or otherwise mismanaging targeting information and procedures. Possible.
  5. Different form of attack entirely – an Afghan security force artillery strike or a Taliban suicide or rocket attack coincident with US air activity. Much less likely – and certainly no evidence.

Every once in a while I find myself believing the Taliban. With the help of MSF, who were operating in the hospital at the time, it seems unlikely that the Taliban were activity deployed inside the hospital grounds, despite the protestations of the acting provincial governor that they were “100 per cent used by Taliban”.  The incident looks to have been an almighty mistake somewhere in the chain of command and control between Afghan security forces making the request and US forces, several thousands of feet above, attempting to respond.

The action of sending GPS coordinates to the US (and Taliban and Afghan government) forces, as MSF appears sensibly to have done, makes the action seem more deliberate but does not guarantee safety.  Human error when under duress in a confused “fog of war” can corrode or overrule all manner of safeguards and procedures. In 1999, the US managed to bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade totally unintentionally during the Kosovo bombing campaign because they had out of date maps. And even more pertinent to the Kunduz incident, in late 2001 at the battle of Qala-i Jangi prison near Mazar-e Sharif, US Forward Air Controllers called in a strike on top of soldiers – and a tank – belonging to General Dostum, whose forces were besieging the Taliban.

T-55 tank knocked out by “friendly fire”, November 2001, Mazar-e Sharif

In this incident, the error occured because the US soldier on the ground had had to change the battery on his GPS device, erasing the most recent stored data and defaulting to the coordinates of his own location when he powered it back on.

Alternately, it is perhaps significant that some Afghan political and military sources appeared initially to have been arguing that, as the Taliban were clearly in the hospital grounds (this is disputed and may well be incorrect), it was therefore acceptable to target the hospital. The Americans are known to be saying that the air strike was conducted at the request of the Afghans. To be fair to the Americans, they have made strong efforts to learn from their “collateral damage” mistakes. I suspect they have a better understanding of the legal and moral implications of knowingly striking a hospital.  We might see a parting of the ways between US and Afghan explanations as investigations proceed.

Is it possible that a crucial “oh, by the way, the Taliban target we are giving you is actually in a hospital” piece of information did not clearly make its way from poorly trained and disciplined Afghan security forces to US personnel and aircraft in the area?

If the Afghan security forces are found to have deemed it acceptable to attack a hospital purely because it was believed to have Taliban in, they may yet be facing a war crimes charge that the Americans will be scramblling to avoid. Interestingly, the Washington Post is suggesting that Afghans are almost sympathetic to the dilemma of Taliban fighting from hospitals and the necessity of attacking them regardless.

Accurate information needs to emerge first, before judgement can be made, but I suspect a chain of human errors to be the most likely cause. As a final thought, I wonder how many buildings are described as “hospitals” or “clinics” in Kunduz? As part of the media reporting, I came across a snippet in several news agencies, including Indian Express, referring to the MSF hospital’s wrecked compound as lying in the east of the city (mapping suggests it is to the south west), with evidence of automatic weapons, including one machine gun, poking from the burnt windows.

Indian Express, 4 Oct: Afghan officials said helicopter gunships returned fire from Taliban fighters who were hiding in the hospital, and AP video footage of the burned out compound in the east of Kunduz city shows automatic weapons, including rifles and at least one machine gun, on windowsills. But Stegeman said there were no insurgents in the facility at the time of the bombing.

Maybe it is easy to get clinics confused.  US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter described the bombing occurring under “hazy circumstances”. In the stress and fog of war, in a night time battle against a shadowy, hard to identify enemy flitting through narrow streets, I can readily see how human error can trigger an unpredictable and undesired chain of events.

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