U.S. President Obama has apologized by phone to Doctors Without Borders. The aid organization insists on an international investigation.
Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, calls for an investigation into the bombing. Photo: reuters
It is not every day that a U.S. president apologizes for U.S. bombs. Barack Obama has done so. On Wednesday, he called Joanne Liu, president of the aid organization Medicins Sans Frontières (MSF). He offered his condolences for the 22 people killed, including 12 of her organization’s staff.
He said Saturday’s U.S. attack on the hospital near Kunduz was a "mistaken bombardment." And he announced a "full and transparent investigation" from which he would draw the necessary conclusions. But the U.S. president did not address Liu’s demand that an independent and impartial external "International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission" (IHFFC) be allowed to operate. His reference is to an in-house Pentagon investigation.
During the phone call between the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the head of the organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, Liu asked the U.S. president for his approval to send independent international investigators. The IHFFC (for: "International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission") can only take action if at least one of the countries involved agrees. The IHFFC was founded in 1991 on the basis of the Geneva Conventions. 76 countries have ratified them.
But neither the U.S. nor Afghanistan is a party to it. And there is nothing to suggest that Kabul or Washington will change their position on the IHFFC after Saturday’s bombing. Among other things, they point to the fact that three different investigations into Saturday’s bombing are already underway. All three investigations are in the hands of actors active in the war zone: the Pentagon, NATO, and the U.S. and Afghan militaries, respectively.
The day before Obama’s call to MSF, the top U.S. military officer in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, had told the U.S. Senate that "errors in the U.S. military’s chain of command" led to the hospital bombing. He said the U.S. military "probably violated its own rules." It responded to an Afghan request for air support, according to its account. Normally, even when the request for bombs comes from the allied Afghan government, the U.S. military must follow a strict procedure and verify the target of the bombs itself in advance. Allegedly, that did not happen on Saturday near Kunduz. Campbell provided no explanation as to why the rule was not followed, which individuals in the chain of command were responsible, and what the consequences will be.
MSF: "War Crimes"
With General Campbell’s version, the U.S. corrects several previous contradictory explanations that Kabul and Washington had provided in previous days. In an earlier version, the bombing of the hospital was considered "collateral damage" in an alleged attack on armed militants in the neighborhood. In another version, the Pentagon had released a statement – apparently false – that U.S. soldiers on the ground near the hospital had been attacked. A version by the Afghan military said armed fighters had used the hospital as a base.
The aid organization under attack, on the other hand, has spoken of a "war crime" from the outset, citing the Geneva Convention. The MSF hospital, which opened four years ago, was the only one in northeastern Afghanistan that could treat serious war injuries. Among its patients were civilians as well as occasional Taliban fighters. The Afghan government had protested, but MSF invoked international law, which requires doctors to treat all war casualties. Since the bombing, the hospital has been closed, and MSF has withdrawn from the region.
MSF had provided GPS location of the clinic to the military
The bombing of the MSF clinic on October 3 lasted about an hour. It came from an AC-130 warplane that flies low and bombs on sight. The attacks focused directly on the central hospital area where most of the medical staff was located. As bombs fell and burned patients in their beds and staff in the operating room, MSF made phone calls to various military agencies in Afghanistan and the United States. Still, the attacks continued for at least half an hour.
MSF U.S. Director Jason Cone told a news conference in New York on Wednesday that his organization also spoke with the head of the U.S. Joint Forces High Command during the bombing. Cone also shared that MSF gave the exact GPS location of its hospital to the Afghan military Sept. 29 and to the U.S. military Sept. 30. Heavy fighting with the Taliban was raging in Kunduz at the time.
Obama’s call to MSF on Tuesday came 14 years to the day after the war in Afghanistan began. The U.S. president, after radically increasing the number of U.S. soldiers deployed in Afghanistan at the beginning of his term, had repeatedly postponed his announced complete withdrawal. Finally, at the end of last year, the U.S. reduced its presence in Afghanistan to 10,000 troops, who are no longer officially assigned to combat missions. At the end of 2015, the number was to be halved again, and after 2016, only a maximum of 1,000 U.S. troops were to remain in the country. But since August, the Pentagon has been promoting staying longer and with more U.S. soldiers present. In his appearance before the Senate, General Campbell also advocated this position.