Kunduz Déjà Vu
One year after the U.S. attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz, I returned to the site of the massacre. The facility is still in ruins, and the Taliban are closing in on the city. Again.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREW QUILTY
The tragedy in Kunduz came as a shock to the U.S. military, and the public apologies followed swiftly. Usually, American forces respond cautiously to reports of bombing raids gone wrong until an internal investigation clarifies what took place. But Kunduz was different — a hospital run by an international medical charity had been hit, and there was no doubt that an American aircraft had carried out the strike. The U.S. headquarters in Kabul issued an apology within hours, and, in a rare move, U.S. President Barack Obama himself expressed his regret a few days later in a phone call to the international president of MSF, Joanne Liu. The U.S. Defense Department also announced that month that it was making “condolence payments” to the victims’ families, even though such measures are customarily handled discreetly out of the public eye.
The bombing damaged the image of a military that often touts its extensive precautions and safeguards designed to avoid killing civilians in air raids. And after the strike on the MSF hospital, the U.S. military launched an elaborate internal investigation and introduced a series of measures designed to prevent another catastrophe.
The military’s investigation into the Kunduz strike, which was released on April 29, concluded that a confluence of technical, procedural, and human errors led to the bombing of the hospital. The crew of the AC-130 aircraft responsible for the attack was not aware that they were firing on a hospital, according to the inquiry. The plane had taken off in a rush, as the crew believed there were U.S. troops under fire, before a no-strike list could be loaded onto the gunship’s software. As a result of the investigation’s findings, 16 service members, including a general, were subjected to various disciplinary and administrative actions. Some of the punishments effectively ended the military careers for those involved.
The measures were in keeping with how the U.S. military handles errant operations that result in civilian deaths, but some human rights advocates have said the response fell far short of what was required. On Oct. 7, 2015, four days after the strike, Liu demanded an independent, international inquiry of the attack under the auspices of the Geneva Conventions. And some rights groups said those responsible should be put on trial for war crimes committed due to gross negligence.
Shortly after the new commander of U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, took over in March, he visited Kunduz to issue a public apology and to meet relatives and colleagues of those killed. He has since returned to Kunduz several times, and his wife has accompanied him. Condolence payments of an unspecified amount have been offered to 250 family members of the victims, and the Pentagon has set aside $5.7 million in funds to construct a new hospital in Kunduz, officials said. The Pentagon maintains that the payments are supposed to be gestures of sympathy and not designed to put a value on the lives lost or serve as compensation for victims.
“It’s still very present in our minds in everything we do,” Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told FP.
As a result of the 2015 airstrike, the U.S. military has retrained its entire force in Afghanistan, more than 9,000 troops, on the rules for using force, also known as the “rules of engagement.” Every newly arrived service member in Afghanistan has to be certified on the rules. And commanders have introduced more rigorous procedures governing every stage of an air operation, with a particular emphasis on ensuring lists of “no-strike” sites are updated at each level of command, Cleveland told FP.
Even with the stricter rules now in place, senior officers acknowledge that there is an inherent risk to conducting airstrikes and that bombing will cause more civilian casualties.
Almost a year to the day of the one-year anniversary of the Kunduz attack, U.S. commanders faced allegations that a drone strike had killed at least three civilians in Nangarhar province near the Pakistani border.
“We are aware of some claims of Afghan casualties and are currently reviewing all materials related to this strike,” the U.S. military mission in Kabul said.