The Cable

Doctors Without Borders Staff Killed in Afghanistan After Airstrikes

At least 19 people were killed, including 12 Doctors Without Borders staffers, and 37 seriously injured Saturday after U.S. air strikes near the organization’s hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN -OCTOBER 03: Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staff are seen during a surgery after a US airstrike on MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan on October 03, 2015. An Afghan health official has said a U.S. air strike early Saturday morning in the northern city of Kunduz has killed 9 people and wounded 37 people, including 19 MSF staff. (Photo by MSF/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN -OCTOBER 03: Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staff are seen during a surgery after a US airstrike on MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan on October 03, 2015. An Afghan health official has said a U.S. air strike early Saturday morning in the northern city of Kunduz has killed 9 people and wounded 37 people, including 19 MSF staff. (Photo by MSF/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Twenty-two people were killed, including 12 Doctors Without Borders staffers, and 37 seriously injured Saturday after U.S. airstrikes near the organization’s hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

In a statement on its website, Doctors Without Borders said it “condemns in the strongest possible terms the horrific bombing of its hospital,” adding it had given “all parties to the conflict” in Kabul and Washington the precise GPS coordinates of its facilities before the attack. On Sunday, the group labeled the incident a “war crime.” 

U.S. Army Col. Brian Tribus said U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in Kunduz early Saturday “against individuals threatening the force.” He said the “strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility. This incident is under investigation.”

U.S. fighter jets have been bombarding Kunduz since Taliban insurgents last Monday captured the city of 300,000 people in one of the biggest Taliban victories in a decade. Since then, the Doctors Without Borders facility has treated 394 wounded victims and was the only functioning hospital in the immediate region. The United Nations and relief organizations evacuated personnel on Monday after the Taliban sacked the city. Just before Saturday’s strikes, 105 patients and their caretakers, and 80 staff members were present in the hospital, according to Doctors Without Borders.

The incident comes as Obama administration officials consider extending the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan beyond early 2016, when President Barack Obama promised to wrap up the military component of America’s longest war. The goal of such an extension would be to avoid the current situation in Iraq, where the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 followed gains by extremist insurgent groups. It’s unclear how Saturday’s strikes might affect U.S. and Afghan government plans for a potential extension.

On Saturday, Doctors Without Borders posted photos on Twitter of the hospital in flames and badly damaged, and demanded an investigation. As recently as Sept. 29, Doctors Without Borders said it relayed the precise location of the facility to all parties in the conflict. The bombing operation continued for 30 minutes Saturday after U.S. and Afghan forces were notified of the hospital’s locations, according to the organization.

Doctors Without Borders “urgently seeks clarity on exactly what took place and how this terrible event could have happened,” the group said in a statement.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter issued a statement on Saturday saying a “full investigation into the tragic incident is underway in coordination with the Afghan government.”

“The area has been the scene of intense fighting the last few days. U.S. forces in support of Afghan Security Forces were operating nearby, as were Taliban fighters,” he said. “While we are still trying to determine exactly what happened, I want to extend my thoughts and prayers to everyone affected. A full investigation into the tragic incident is underway in coordination with the Afghan government.”

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a statement saying it “mourns for the individuals and families affected by the tragic incident.”

“Doctors Without Borders performs terrific work throughout the world, including Afghanistan, and our thoughts and prayers are with their team at this difficult moment,” said the embassy. “We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing violence in Kunduz and the difficult humanitarian situation faced by its residents.”

Over the years, U.S. airstrikes have badly damaged local support for American-led coalition efforts in Afghanistan, even though incidents involving civilian casualties account for a small portion of civilian deaths in the conflict. A recent U.N. report found that in the first six months of 2015, 70 percent of all civilian casualties were the result of Taliban and various anti-government attacks. But U.S. coalition strikes, which Afghans routinely describe as attacks by foreigners, stokes significant unrest and can bolster support for the Taliban insurgency.

According to the Washington Post, the Taliban seized on Saturday’s strikes and accused the U.S.-led coalition of “savagery” and a “barbaric act.”

Separately, the International Red Cross condemned the incident in a statement, calling it an “appalling tragedy” that undermines “the capacity of humanitarians to assist the Afghan people.”

This post has been updated. 

Pentagon reporter Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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