The Cable

Days After Hospital Bombing, Kerry Boasts About Health Care Access in Afghanistan

During a speech on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry boasted about U.S. efforts to improve Afghanistan’s health care system as he defended the Obama administration’s plans to keep thousands of American troops in the country beyond a previous 2016 deadline.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 17:  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during the second and the final day of the "Our Ocean" conference June 17, 2014 at the State Department in Washington, DC. The two-day conference was focused on "sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, and ocean acidification."  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 17: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during the second and the final day of the "Our Ocean" conference June 17, 2014 at the State Department in Washington, DC. The two-day conference was focused on "sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, and ocean acidification." (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

During a speech on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry lauded U.S. efforts to improve Afghanistan’s health care system as he defended the Obama administration’s plans to keep thousands of American troops in the country beyond a previous 2016 deadline.

But the timing wasn’t ideal.

Kerry’s comments came just days after a botched U.S. bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital killed 22 people and prompted outrage around the world. President Barack Obama issued a personal apology to the organization last week, but the group has condemned the strike as a possible war crime.

“There’s been an extraordinary growth in the delivery of healthcare and representative governance [in Afghanistan] and President Obama’s announcement today will help to protect our country as well as to protect Afghanistan on this road to recovery,” Kerry said.

Read more from FP on the MSF Bombing

Kerry did not mention the Oct. 3 bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Defense and NATO, respectively. The strike killed 10 patients and 12 hospital staff and occurred as Afghan forces fought with the Taliban after the insurgent group briefly captured the city of 300,000 people. The trauma center was the only facility of its kind in northeastern Afghanistan.

In his speech, Kerry said that Obama’s plan to keep almost 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for most of next year and almost 6,000 after he leaves the White House in 2017 is “essential” to giving the new unity government in Afghanistan the support it needs to “implement reforms and defend its population against violent extremists.”

Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French initials MSF, has been highly critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the strike. On Thursday, the group launched a petition calling on the U.S. to agree to an independent investigation into the incident, noting that precise GPS coordinates of the four-year-old hospital were provided to the U.S. days before the strike.

“There must be an independent and impartial investigation to establish the facts of this horrific attack on our hospital,” Jason Cone, the executive director of the group’s U.S. branch, said.

In a separate development on Thursday, the medical charity’s personnel in Afghanistan said a U.S. tank forced its way through the closed gates of the hospital, breaking an understanding that the group would be informed prior to a visit.

“Their unannounced and forced entry damaged property, destroyed potential evidence and caused stress and fear,” MSF said in a statement. The group said they were later informed that the visit was the result of a joint U.S./NATO/Afghan team needing to investigate the scene.

The rationale behind the bombing remains unclear, though the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, called the decision a “mistake.” On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that American special operations analysts were aware the MSF facility was a protected hospital, but believed it was being used by a Pakistani national in cahoots with the Taliban. It’s unclear if the U.S. personnel in the AC-130 gunship that struck the hospital were aware of either piece of information.

Most of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the last six months have been caused by the Taliban, according to a recent U.N. report. But U.S. coalition strikes, which Afghans routinely describe as attacks by foreigners, are known to stoke significant unrest and support for the Taliban insurgency.

Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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