Why the bombing of the Kunduz hospital was likely a war crime

The US and NATO commander in Afghanistan General John Campbell has now come out and said that the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz was a ‘mistake’ and that US forces were called in at the request of Afghan forces. But he also admitted that the strike had been approved after going through the US chain of command. He said that “Even though the Afghans request that support, it still has to go through a rigorous US procedure to enable fires to go on the ground. We had a special operations unit that was in close vicinity that was talking to the aircraft that delivered those fires,” which means that the special forces would have been involved in calling for the strike. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) says that what the US has said so far amounts to an admission of a war crime.

It is becoming clear that the bombing of the hospital was not an error in that the bomb was intended for a different target but went astray. The hospital was clearly targeted and the only question now is why. Peter Maass says that while we cannot say for sure just yet, a case can be made that it was a war crime. It is important to realize that a war crime does not require deliberate intent to kill civilians. A reckless act that results in those deaths can be a war crime, as is a disproportionate response that does not take steps to mitigate the danger to civilians. This is why MSF is alleging a war crime.

Initial reports from the U.S. military alleged that U.S. forces were under attack in the vicinity of the hospital, prompting the airstrike. Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, later said this was actually not the case and that it was Afghan forces that requested air support, though he also said, speaking in broad terms about sites like medical facilities and schools, that “we do not strike those kind of targets, obviously.” Afghan officials later claimed the “hospital campus was 100 percent used by the Taliban,” a charge that MSF strenuously denies.

Even if there was any truth to those allegations — and to date, no evidence has emerged of the Taliban fighting from the hospital grounds — the bombing would likely still be a violation of international law.

“These statements imply that Afghan and U.S. forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present,” Christopher Stokes, MSF’s general director, said in a statement. “This amounts to an admission of a war crime.”

According to Jonathan Horowitz, a legal officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative who formerly worked as an adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, those who plan and decide attacks are required to “do everything feasible to verify that the objectives to be attacked are neither civilian nor civilian objects and are not subject to special protections. The planners must also take all feasible measure to choose the means and methods of attack with the view of avoiding, or at least minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life and injury to civilians and civilian objects.”

The statement by Campbell is the fourth different account given by the US government. MSF is not buying the latest story.

But Jason Cone, Doctors Without Borders’ US executive director, said Campbell’s shifting story underscored the need for an independent inquiry.

“Today’s statement from General Campbell is just the latest in a long list of confusing accounts from the US military about what happened in Kunduz on Saturday,” Cone said.

“They are now back to talking about a ‘mistake’. A mistake that lasted for more than an hour, despite the fact that the location of the hospital was well known to them and that they were informed during the airstrike that it was a hospital being hit. All this confusion just underlines once again the crucial need for an independent investigation into how a major hospital, full of patients and MSF staff, could be repeatedly bombed.”

As I said before, these shifting stories are all part of a standard plan. We are going through the usual obfuscatory process that the US government indulges in when it commits an atrocity so that people get confused about what may have actually happened and apologists can seize on the story that they think most excuses the act. We are witnessing yet again the various steps the US takes when its appalling actions come to light. (I have added a sixth (#5) to the five listed earlier.) The first is: We didn’t do it, it must have been someone else. Next we have: Well, let’s not jump to conclusions but wait and see for a full and thorough investigation that may take months or even years. The third is: We may have done it but we’ll have to look into what might have gone wrong. The fourth is: It looks like we did it but if we did it was justified because those devious enemies tricked us into doing it. The fifth is: It was the fault of our stupid allies who are not as careful as we are. And the sixth is: Yes we did it but we didn’t mean to, it was an accident due to the ‘fog-of-war’ etc. and we will pay compensation to the victims (ignoring the fact that there was absolutely no fog involved).

This whole process is designed so as to drag things out as long as possible before any responsibility is attached so that the American people will get bored with it and shift their attention to the next new shiny object: “Look, Donald Trump said something outrageous today!” This has been the practice numerous times, with the shooting down of the civilian Iranian Airbus airliner in 1988 by Ronald Reagan, the bombing of the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan by Bill Clinton in 1998, and the massacre of a village in Yemen in 2009 by Barack Obama.

As for the idea that the US will investigate and punish those responsibility for this atrocity, that is just a soothing story put out by the US government in the immediate aftermath of a ghastly occurrence like this in order to buy time and to pacify critics. You can be certain that nothing will happen to anyone. Remember the treatment of William Calley, the army officer who led the ghastly My Lai massacre? President Nixon came to his defense. And what about the captain and crew of the USS Vincennes that shot down the Iranian Airbus killing all 290 civilians on board? They were actually given medals of honor. What about the people responsible for the al Shifa bombing? Or the Yemeni massacre? Or indeed any of the other atrocities that the US government promised to investigate fully and punish those responsible?

Nothing will happen this time too.


  1. AMM says

    … apologists can seize on the story that they think most excuses the act.

    I noticed a fair number of them in the comment thread of your last post on this bombing.

    But the real reason the US won’t get prosecuted for war crimes: you only have to worry about getting in trouble for war crimes if you lose. Winners never get in trouble. And so far, the USA is the biggest bully on the block.

  2. Holms says

    Speaking of obfuscating and delaying investigation until something distracting comes up, did anything ever come of the reports of atrocities committed during Protective Edge?

  3. k_machine says

    William Calley served a whopping three days in jail for killing something like 200+ people (he served the rest of his sentence in house arrest). The official US army investigation actually recommended that officers higher up in the chain of command should be court martialed, including the two generals of Calley’s division. Also, “The Ballad of Lt. Calley” defending Calley, was a hit in the US, belying the idea that the US public hated the soldiers.

  4. Holms says

    I noticed a fair number of them in the comment thread of your last post on this bombing.

    Note that it is actually just one guy, he just has a habit of triple posting (or more) his apologetics at the drop of a hat, usually cycling through the same list of tiresome, debunked points agains and again.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    I just saw an interview with an MSF spokesman, in which he said that the hospital compound was largely untouched, but intensive care and operating rooms seemed to be targeted precisely. Curious.

  6. brucegee1962 says


    I was probably one of the “apologists” mentioned in the last letter, in that I said that I thought it most likely that, in the mixture of malice and idiocy that led to this event, I suspected the malice portion did not originate within the US forces.

    Nevertheless, that was just a hunch. I agree with the topic of the OP; this should be treated as a war crime so that we can get to the bottom of it, and some person or persons should get a more substantial punishment than just a letter of reprimand. The UN needs to hammer the US as much as possible. I just hope the scapegoat that ends up taking the blame actually does hold a substantial share of the guilt.

    If you want to find out the truth about anything, threats of jail time are likely to be the only way to get it. Most military people that I know might be willing to sacrifice their career to protect a superior (since they know they’ll still be able to get a cushy job on the outside,) but they’ll draw the line at doing time.

  7. Saad says

    But Mano, there’s still hardly any information about this alleged attack. I just wish there was some information.

    I’m not saying the U.S. is perfect but there’s just no information about this incident. I haven’t been able to read any accounts of what happened from anyone anywhere on the internet, including the multiple links you alone have posted.

    Any reasonable person who values skepticism will agree that we have to wait for the comprehensive and impartial investigation carried out by the wholly disinterested United States military.

  8. doublereed says

    ??? at @7 and @8

    It’s not like we don’t have information. We know the US targeted the hospital. We know they knew it was MSF. We knew they continued attacking for thirty minutes after they were again repeated that they were shelling MSF. The US Military essentially admitted to war crime charges.

    It should be treated as a war crime investigation because it’s a war crime.

  9. doublereed says

    @8 Saad

    I’m sorry, reading your post again, did you really just say alleged attack?

  10. Saad says

    doublereed, #10

    I need to stop doing sarcasm. 🙁

    The usual defenders of the U.S. hadn’t chimed in yet, so I thought I’d try my hand at it.

    I thought it’d be obvious from the “impartial investigation carried out by the wholly disinterested United States military” part.

  11. Who Cares says


    I’m not saying the U.S. is perfect but there’s just no information about this incident. I haven’t been able to read any accounts of what happened from anyone anywhere on the internet, including the multiple links you alone have posted.

    I suggest you actually look then. I suggest google and then something like Kunduz MSF.

    Then again you probably don’t want to do that since will most likely end up with a statement from the General in charge of this mess stating that his troops weren’t under attack from the hospital when this strike was called in.
    Or a statement by MSF that the hospital has been there for 4 years and that they regularly send the GPS coordinates to both the US and Afghan army
    Or a statement by the US army/airforce stating that the Afghans are so unreliable with their calling in targets (That was before the admission that the US army did so) that the USAF has to scout out the target before an attack can commence.

    And that is just a smattering of official statements you can only not find if you do not look.

  12. brucegee1962 says

    @9: I agree with you. One bomb could be explained as a mistake, but a prolonged campaign that persisted after attempts were made to notify the chain of command does rise to the level of a war crime. Mano also makes a good point that it doesn’t particularly matter whether the ultimate cause was malice or gross incompetence — pleading incompetence shouldn’t be an allowable defense.

    If you’re allowed by society to play with things like airplanes and bombs and missiles, then you carry responsibility for what those things do.

  13. Who Cares says

    The problem being that people (not here) have been using what you put up as sarcasm almost verbatim in all seriousness.

  14. Rob Grigjanis says

    Saad @11:

    I need to stop doing sarcasm.

    No! You do it very well. And I’m not being sarcastic!

  15. says

    It is becoming clear that the bombing of the hospital was not an error in that the bomb was intended for a different target but went astray.

    An AC-130 orbiting for 1/2 hour is never a bomb that went astray. It’s not even a bombardment that went astray. Those things have realtime video links of their target and can literally watch the shells hit and target individuals on the ground.

  16. moarscienceplz says

    I would hope that even if the hospital had nothing but Taliban people in it, we still should have a rule preventing us from firing on it. Or have we thrown the Geneva convention totally out the window?

  17. Dunc says

    @18: Yeah. I believe it’s also customary for field hospitals in conflict zones to be clearly identified with large red crosses to avoid precisely this sort of occurrence.

  18. says

    Or have we thrown the Geneva convention totally out the window?

    The US has ignored the Geneva Convention in every conflict since Vietnam. So: yes.

  19. lorn says

    The barest outline of facts have been established, precious few have been confirmed by multiple sources, multiple non-coordinating witnesses, or physical evidence and it has already been declared “likely a war crime”.

    Congratulations on not going full-on knee-jerk nut-case and declaring it a war crime. Your restraint is an example to us all.

    In these sorts of cases I generally wait a month or six weeks before bothering to notice anything but who is projecting their bias and playing out their fears. Typically these same people are quite silent after the verifiable facts emerge and their earlier prognostications and declarations are shown to be little more than a flimsy stack of assumptions and misunderstanding rooted in their existing bias.

    Good thing there is none of that going on here.

  20. Mano Singham says


    It seems like we have a lot of facts that have come from MSF, the Afghan government, and the US military, and they all pretty much agree on the main sequence of events. The main difference in the accounts is the claim by the Afghan government that the Taliban were firing at them from the hospital, something that even the US military is not corroborating, although there were special operations forces just a half mile away. But as has been repeatedly said, even if that were true, that does not make the bombing justified because no warning was given, which is something that is required for facilities that have the presumption of having protected status.

    What facts are you waiting for?

  21. Holms says

    In these sorts of cases I generally wait a month or six weeks before bothering to notice anything but who is projecting their bias and playing out their fears.

    Excellent, just long enough for everything to blow over nicely. And once the government has successfully brushed everything under the carpet, and its friendly media has dropped it for the latest celebrity scandal, I’m sure you’ll take that as a sign that it was never very important -- if you remember it at all.

    Another incident successfully memory-holed!

  22. lorn says

    Holms @ 24:
    “Another incident successfully memory-holed!”

    There is a modern tendency to think anything that hasn’t been announced, analyzed, and final conclusions drawn in a week is lost. I’m old enough to remember some of the feelings around the Kennedy assassination. I think I was very young, still wearing diapers I think, but I vividly remember the stunned silence after the news was announced on the radio. A neighbor had come over and told my parents the needed to turn on the radio. I don’t think we had a TV back then. News was what you got from the radio and newspaper. Fifty-two years and it still hasn’t slid down the memory hole.

    Neither has the Vietnam war with the daily body count: ours and theirs. I saw Nixon on Laugh-In —
    “sock it to meee?”. I saw Nixon on TV the day he gave that iconic double peace-sign salute. I watched the Watergate hearings with an ‘old country lawyer’ trying to figure it out. Sam Ervin spoke at my graduation ceremony.

    If you want to know things you have to wait for the much more authoritative second or third version to come out. Generally secrets don’t last very long. In time we will have a pretty solid accounting of what happened, why, what went wrong. I’m patient with a long memory.

  23. Holms says

    Wow, it’s amazing that you remember some of the most memorable events modern American history.

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