- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
The U.S. military on Monday offered a new account of the lethal airstrike that hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in northern Afghanistan, saying the raid was requested by Afghan troops under fire and not American troops.
The announcement drew an angry response from Doctors Without Borders and raised questions about how the U.S. military will carry out air strikes in the future when Afghan troops ask for help.
At a hastily arranged Pentagon press conference, Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said he was correcting an earlier version of events that his office had put out over the weekend.
“We have now learned that on Oct. 3, Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. forces,” Campbell said.
“This is different from initial reports which indicated that U.S. forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf,” the general said.
The bombing Saturday in Kunduz killed 12 staff members from Doctors Without Borders, and at least 10 patients. Another 37 people were wounded in the incident, in which U.S. aircraft repeatedly pounded the packed clinic at 15 minute intervals over an about an hour, according to the charity.
Campbell, referring to the bombing as “tragic,” pinned the blame on Taliban insurgents for choosing to fight from “within a heavily urbanized area, purposely placing civilians in harm’s way.”
But he acknowledged that U.S. special forces advising Afghan troops in Kunduz had relayed the request for air power from their Afghan counterparts. An AC-130 gunship, a lumbering cargo aircraft outfitted with 150mm and 40mm cannons, carried out the strike, Campbell said.
Doctors Without Borders has called the raid a war crime and said no fighting was taking place near the hospital when it was bombed. The charity’s general director, Christopher Stokes, demanded an independent investigation into the case.
“Their description of the attack keeps changing – from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government,” Stokes said in a statement for the charity, which also goes by the name Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).
“The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff,” he said.
He added: “With such constant discrepancies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical.”
The U.S. military has strict rules of engagement that govern the use of air power and those rules admonish commanders to exercise restraint when targeting enemy forces in populated areas.
But it remains unclear whether American or Afghan forces provided the information on the location for the strike. Doctors Without Borders said it had provided the coordinates of the hospital to both Afghan and NATO forces beforehand.
After the bulk of U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan last year, American commanders have orders to only call in air power to protect U.S. troops, target al Qaeda, or to come to the aid of Afghan forces in dire circumstances.
But depending on what an investigation undercovers, the Pentagon may have to review the rules for air raids if senior officers conclude they cannot rely on Afghan troops on the ground to convey accurate targeting information.
Campbell, who was in Washington to testify before Congress about the war effort, said a U.S. military investigation led by a brigadier general as well as a NATO investigation was underway and that he could not discuss more details about the incident until the inquiries were complete.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaking to reporters en route to Spain, said the situation in Kunduz “is confused and complicated, so it may take some time to get the facts, but we will get the facts.”
U.S. officers would be held accountable “if required,” Carter said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has not denounced the U.S. government over the strike, in contrast to his predecessor – Hamid Karzai – who repeatedly blasted Washington whenever errant bombs claimed civilian lives. And there have been no major demonstrations protesting the U.S. military presence.
“I’ve been surprised how muted the response has been,” said Seth Jones, a former adviser to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and a senior fellow with the RAND Corporation think tank.
“As terrible as it is, it doesn’t look like it has damaged support for the U.S. to remain in Afghanistan.”
The bombing of the hospital came amid intense fighting for control of Kunduz, with Afghan government forces attempting to roll back the Taliban, which entered the city center last week.
The Taliban’s storming of Kunduz stunned the Kabul government and called into question the strength of the U.S.-trained Afghan security forces, which American commanders have touted as ready and able to keep the insurgency in check.
President Barack Obama has yet to announce a decision on the future presence of American troops in Afghanistan. A 9,800-strong force remains on the ground and Obama had vowed to withdraw the remaining troops by the end of 2016, while leaving behind up to a thousand troops attached to the U.S. embassy.
But Campbell has suggested keeping U.S. troops in place for a longer period, providing options that would keep several thousand forces in the country beyond 2016.
Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images