More details emerge on the US assault on the Kunduz hospital


More details are emerging about the attack by a US gunship on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in the early hours of Saturday, October 3, 2015 that resulted in 22 deaths (so far), at least 37 injured, 33 missing, and resulted in the closing of the only major hospital that served a wide area. After talking with the people who worked at the hospital and live in the area, the Los Angeles Times provides a detailed chronology of the events of that night. The Washington Post has another account that complements it, using as its main sources the US and Afghan military.

A security guard said that there was perfect calm that night, with the hospital treating 105 patients (that included a few Taliban fighters) just before they heard the sound of a warplane at around 2:00am that was immediately followed by an attack on the main building.

Obama said the facility was “mistakenly struck.” But he and other senior officials have left key questions unanswered, chiefly, how American troops on the ground and aboard an AC-130 gunship failed to realize that they were repeatedly bombarding a hospital, one of the best-known landmarks in a city of 300,000 people.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning medical charity — also known by its French name, Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF — established the hospital in August 2011 in a compound formerly occupied by a textile company. The campus of low-slung, whitewashed buildings occupies an area roughly the size of two football fields and is surrounded mostly by empty land, except for a few houses across the road to the east.

As is standard practice in the conflict zones where MSF operates, the group had passed on the hospital’s GPS coordinates to military officials in Kabul and Washington multiple times, most recently about four days before the bombing.

As the attack began Saturday, the group again contacted the U.S. and Afghan military personnel with whom they had shared the hospital’s location, said Jason Cone, MSF’s executive director in the United States.

“We were under the impression that it was being passed up the chain of command,” Cone said.

Yet the bombing went on for at least 30 minutes more.

The bombings occurred at about 15-minute intervals and lasted about an hour, MSF staff members said. The main building, housing the intensive-care unit and emergency rooms, appeared to be the target of the strikes; surrounding buildings sustained less damage.

About half an hour after the airstrikes stopped, sometime after 3 a.m., staff members slowly ventured outside and began to absorb what had happened.

Jecs peeked into the ICU and saw “six patients were burning in their beds.”

Omer, an Afghan doctor who had been in an adjacent building, saw the main hospital building charred black, with fires burning inside. Patients and nurses had suffered severe burns, he said.

“It was a horrible moment,” he said. “I couldn’t save my own colleagues.”

“One of our doctors died on an improvised operating table — an office desk — while his colleagues tried to save his life,” MSF International President Joanne Liu said.

Survivors tried to carry the wounded and dead out of the compound. Among those killed were three children who had been admitted the previous evening, after they and their parents had come under fire in their vehicle as they tried to drive out of the city.

It is important to recognize the extreme bravery and dedication of the MSF staff to continue to work in such a dangerous area.

Two days before the hospital bombing, Amnesty International said the Taliban posed a grave threat to civilians. The group said it had been receiving reports of “mass murder, gang rapes and house-to-house searches” by Taliban fighters. Most other international groups, including the United Nations, removed staff from Kunduz as the Taliban advanced.

On Thursday, Doctors Without Borders officials defended their decision to remain in the area. They said they had regular contact with Taliban officials and had received assurances of safety.

“The very reason you have a trauma centre is to be able to operate on war victims, and you want to be able to operate in these kinds of conditions,” [Christopher Stokes, executive director of MSF] said. “We had been given guarantees. We had given all the coordinates to all of the parties. We had not received a specific request to leave. . . . We were still receiving a lot of civilian casualties, including women and children.”

A security guard said that five days earlier, the Taliban had captured the city and marched in victoriously, making the hospital staff nervous because of their reputation for “storming civilian homes, raiding the offices of local and international aid agencies and abusing residents”.

“We were scared,” said Suhrab, the security guard. “Everyone was concerned about what the Taliban would do to us.”

That afternoon, Taliban fighters reached the hospital gate. Suhrab was among a group of MSF staffers who greeted them at the entrance.

“We opened the door, but they said they didn’t have permission to go inside,” he said. “They told us to go back in, that it wasn’t safe, and that we should continue doing our jobs.”

MSF staff in Kunduz said that several wounded Taliban fighters were brought to the hospital during the course of the clashes, but without weapons. They would be handed over by colleagues at the front gate and, like other patients, received occasional visitors, including Taliban elders.

“A few times some of their elders would come inside to visit patients and meet with doctors,” said Rahimullah, an Afghan doctor at the hospital, who, like many Afghans, has only one name.

“They assured us, ‘No one can harm you, you will be safe here,’ so we were confident. Everyone was feeling safe inside the compound.”

Hospital officials said that they did everything possible to make people aware that they were a hospital.

Hospital officials had previously stated that they had given Afghan and coalition troops the GPS coordinates of the buildings. Those coordinates pinpointed the front steps to the emergency room, officials said Thursday. Two 6-by-9-foot flags with the organization’s red and white logo also were draped across the roof, they said.

U.S. officials have said that an AC-130 “gunship,” which is used to support American Special Operations troops and can fire a range of ammunition, carried out the raid. It is not immediately clear whether the crew of the fighter craft, which uses infrared technology at night, could distinguish the markings on a flag.

As Martin Schram writes, the US government has repeatedly changed its story, trying to curtail the damage as new information contradicted their earlier rationalizations.

For four days in October, the Pentagon’s top generals and civilian bosses frantically shifted verbs, tenses and explanations like frenzied truckers grinding their gears on a perilous mountain road with no guardrails.

Careening through twists and turns, climbs and plunges, the generals and their bosses struggled to keep their runaway rigs rolling through an endless fog. Worse yet, this was a fog of their own making. And they knew they only made it worse every time they misspoke.

So it was that, for four days in October, we were bombarded by a blizzard of official lies. But we don’t yet know whether we were the only ones being deceived. Were America’s top generals and their civilian bosses also being misled by their subordinates?

Perhaps this was the week when the Pentagon’s top brass was caught in a rare command updraft — a blizzard of lies that may have swept out of Afghanistan and right up America’s military chain of command.

The uproar is so great that even the American NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove has said the he personally supports calls for an independent investigation.

The US government has agreed to provide compensation to the victims and their families, one of the ways it tries to mute criticisms. But it remains to be seen if the US government will allow an independent investigation or continue to stonewall in the hope that this will go away.

Comments

  1. Matt G says

    This is an absolute disgrace. As the saying goes, in war the first casualty is the truth. An independent investigation is called for, if that is even possible.

  2. Holms says

    The US government has agreed to provide compensation to the victims and their families, one of the ways it tries to mute criticisms.

    I wonder what the price of a human life is in their eyes.

  3. says

    heard the sound of a warplane at around 2:00am

    So, they wouldn’t have seen any red cross markings.

    That’s the good news.

    The bad news is: it’s a war crime, file under “area bombing”

  4. says

    The infrared spotting scopes on an AC130 would not have been able to discern the red crosses on any flags.

    You can see AC130 camera footage here (warning: horrible)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ym2RPGyFI48

    It’s not super clear. But that doesn’t excuse the operators in the slightest: you are not supposed to bomb the fuck out of targets unless they are clearly military.

    Also, at 2:00am there would not have been meaningful ground fire from taliban, anyway. What, firing small arms into the air in the dark? Bullshit. And that stuff about taliban heavy weapons? Bullshit. You don’t fire artillery in the dark because it marks your position with the muzzle flashes.

    The government is lying. I am shocked, shocked I tell you.

  5. lorn says

    — It’s not super clear. But that doesn’t excuse the operators in the slightest: you are not supposed to bomb the fuck out of targets unless they are clearly military.

    Q – Exactly what makes a “target military”? A – The presence of people with weapons willing to shoot. Can the MSF doctors definitely say there weren’t Taliban troops firing from their building? The more important questions is: What made them think the building was a military target?

    — Also, at 2:00am there would not have been meaningful ground fire from taliban, anyway.

    Meaningful to who? An Afghan unit said it was under fire. If the Afghan army is out it can be counted on that the Taliban is also active preparing a greeting.

    Most nights have enough light for effective fire without any special training or equipment. Firing cards and stakes work to increase effectiveness of crew served weapons at night. All sides know how to shoot at night and do. Also, although they are not really necessary, low-light sights are available on the open market.

    — What, firing small arms into the air in the dark? Bullshit. And that stuff about taliban heavy weapons? Bullshit. You don’t fire artillery in the dark because it marks your position with the muzzle flashes.

    This tells me you don’t know how the term “heavy weapons” is used. A heavy weapon is any weapon not normally operated by one man. The term crew-served is an indicator but some weapons change context if they are employed in certain ways. A ‘heavy weapon’ can be as light and simple as a medium machine gun, belt-fed and roughly 7mm, mounted on a tripod, the core of most Taliban air defenses: the 12.5mm machinegun which is always fired from a mount, a mortar of any size, recoilless rifles, or, as used by the Taliban as a support weapon grouped with a serving crew, RPGs. Anyone doubting this last point needs to understand that an RPG has a range in excess of 1000 meters and can be used in an anti-aircraft role. Most helicopters in Somalia were shot down with RPGs. Fired in groups they constitute a rough but quite capable artillery and anti-aircraft weapon.

    Shooting is always a calculated risk, day or night. In daylight weapons raise dust clouds and they can be localized by computerized microphone arrays. The Taliban are not shy about shooting at night if they have a good reason. They tend to be smart enough to shoot a few times, and then move. Simple items like blankets, damp cloths, and trees are sometimes used to lower the thermal signature.

    You might want to read this:
    http://www.crimesofwar.org/a-z-guide/hospitals/

    The protection of hospitals is far from absolute. The rules were written for conflicts where the factions each had their own hospitals. Care was to be take to provide a wide separation of troops and legitimate military targets from hospitals if their status is not to be compromised.

    Keep the phrase: “may well have fallen into the category of a questionable but lawful military action” in mind.

  6. says

    This tells me you don’t know how the term “heavy weapons” is used. A heavy weapon is any weapon not normally operated by one man.

    I was an M-60 gunner, dipshit. I’ve fired them, and M2s at night; I know something about muzzle flash.

    Do continue.

  7. Holms says

    Q – Exactly what makes a “target military”? A – The presence of people with weapons willing to shoot. Can the MSF doctors definitely say there weren’t Taliban troops firing from their building? The more important questions is: What made them think the building was a military target?

    Not being a hospital, for one. And no, even the confirmed presence of combatants does not result in a complete relaxation of restriction, it’s still a hospital and therefore retains some protection:

    “The US military never gave Doctors Without Borders prior notification of a deadly airstrike on its field hospital in Kunduz, the aid group said on Wednesday, in an apparent violation of the Pentagon’s own instructions on the rules of war.

    Protections for hospitals, a longstanding principle of international humanitarian law, would only lift if the hospital was used as a staging ground for attacks – something MSF has emphatically denied occurred in Kunduz. Yet even if the protections lifted, the Pentagon manual does not permit the hospital to come under general attack, instead requiring distinction and “proportion” to the threat.

    “Such use of force in self-defense against medical units or facilities must be proportionate. For example, a single enemy rifleman firing from a hospital window would warrant a response against the rifleman only, rather than the destruction of the hospital,” the manual states.”

    At minimum, even if we go further than what is claimed and pretend that the hospital was brimming with militants, the airstrike violated the US military’s own rules of engagement for lacking a warning.

    And as for whether the MSF can truly prove there were no fighters, bear in mind that the type of gunship involved records engagements through IR cameras, and would easily be able to clear the confusion with footage if there truly were any militants present. Why then the reticence? The obvious answer is that they have no such exculpatory footage.

  8. janiceclanfield says

    This is why so many people in the world view the U.S. as a bunch of murderous thugs.

    Better than the Russians? Hardly.

  9. StevoR says

    @ ^ janiceclanfield : Better than the Russians – after did the USA annex Afghanistan and Iraq the way that Russia has annexed Crimea and parts of Ukraine. US and Western troops are helping build schools and hospitals and infrastructure in those countries – then handing them back to their people as democracies.

    Hmm.. come to think of it the US is a democracy. TheRepubls may make a pretty poor excuse for an opposition party but at least there’s a real democracy and genuine elections with a genuinely free media and civil rights and rules of law. Russia? Not so much. (China even less despite being mislabelled a People’s republic.)

    Oh & look at how LGBTQI people are treated respectively in Russia vs America. One of these nations just legalised equal marriage. Hint : It wasn’t theeatsren one :

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_Russia#Sexual_Orientation_and_Gender_Identity

    Oh & scroll up to compare the human rights situations in a lot of other areas.

    Plus if you dislike how the US treats terrorists you’re going to really hate how the Russians deal with theirs – Chechnya ring any bells?

    Globally its no contest. People are voting with their feet – a lot of migrants are trying to enter the West. Not aware that many if any are volunteering to enter and live as Russians and Chinese citizens.

    So hardly better than Russians? No. Vastly better in reality still – even if some on the ideological left do like wrongly saying otherwise in their excessive zeal to bit the national and cultural hands that feed them.

  10. StevoR says

    Arrgh! Typos. Make that “..their excessive zeal to bite the national ..” & “It wasn’t the Eastern one.” Among probly others.

    Incidentally, I would support an independent investigation into what happened in the mistaken Kunduz MSF bombing provided it was truly independent and evidence based and not out to just politically attack the US military. I.O.W. key words Impartial & evidence based.

    I hope we find out the truth here.

  11. dianne says

    even if some on the ideological left do like wrongly saying otherwise in their excessive zeal to bit the national and cultural hands that feed them.

    So practicing the freedoms the US is said to provide, i.e. free speech, is “biting the national and cultural hand that feeds you”? What use are they then? Shall we all be grateful for our right to praise the US?

  12. Dunc says

    after did the USA annex Afghanistan and Iraq the way that Russia has annexed Crimea and parts of Ukraine. US and Western troops are helping build schools and hospitals and infrastructure in those countries – then handing them back to their people as democracies.

    Yeah – incredibly corrupt “democracies” in which all of the participating parties were hand-picked by the USA, and any political factions the USA strongly dislikes get eliminated by drone strikes or cruise missiles. Very free and fair, I’m sure.

    Also, remind me here: how many people did the Russians actually kill in Crimea and Ukraine? How many thousands of tonnes of bombs did they drop? How many cities did they flatten with thermobaric bombs? How much civilian infrastructure did they destroy?

  13. StevoR says

    @ ^ Dunc : Don’t you have google or wikipedia? Okay :

    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31392473

    More than 5,400 people have died since the conflict began, and there has been a dramatic rise in casualties in recent days, with 263 civilians killed in populated areas between 31 January and 5 February.

    For Ukraine. Wikipedia says 2 Ukrainian soldiers killed 80 detained. You think that makes Russia’s annexation okay? Or makes it fine to ignore the fact that it *is* an annexation do you?

    In fairness, getting exact and reliable figures can be really tricky. (Not being sarcastic – a lot of the time it seems estimates vary and we just don’t know and there are competing claims.)

    However, you are making a lot of assertions there unsupported with evidence there I observe.

    “Hand picked” by the USA? “Incredibly corrupt” as opposed to averagely corrupt? The better alternatives being ..? Got any answers to those questions here or extraordinary evidence to back your extraordinary assertions there?

  14. julian says

    I wonder what the price of a human life is in their eyes.

    Any number they give would be too much for yours

  15. Holms says

    Incidentally, I would support an independent investigation into what happened in the mistaken Kunduz MSF bombing provided it was truly independent and evidence based and not out to just politically attack the US military. I.O.W. key words Impartial & evidence based.

    You seem to think criticising the US implies a loss of impartiality.

  16. Dunc says

    Dunc : Don’t you have google or wikipedia?

    It was a rhetorical question, doofus. And no, I don’t think it makes annexation OK, but I do think it compares pretty favourably with the numbers of deaths resulting from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. (For comparison: at least 151,000 Iraqis and 26,000 Afghans, by the most conservative estimates available. Once you start getting into indirect excess deaths due to the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the general breakdown in law and order, we’re talking over a million.) Do you think the fact that the USA didn’t actually annex either country outright makes the deaths of a million people OK? If you want to turn around and argue that the US isn’t so bad by one particular metric, you at least have to acknowledge the fact that they’re several orders of magnitude worse by others. Personally, I regard the number of corpses as a rather more important metric than the details of the political arrangements, but that’s just me. (Although I suspect that the dead and their relatives might agree…)

    “Hand picked” by the USA? “Incredibly corrupt” as opposed to averagely corrupt? The better alternatives being ..? Got any answers to those questions here or extraordinary evidence to back your extraordinary assertions there?

    My perception of the level of corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan is based on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which currently ranks Afghanistan as the fourth most corrupt country in the world (behind North Korea, Somalia, and Sudan), and Iraq as the sixth (behind the above, plus South Sudan).

    As for my assertion that the acceptable candidates in the Iraq and Afghan elections were “hand picked” by the USA, that’s simply a matter of basic logic and the historical record. The only political forces acknowledged as legitimate in either country were those which did not oppose the US. Everybody else got shot at or bombed. The transitional governments which administered the first elections in Iraq, and the delegates to the 2002 loya jirga in Afghanistan, were absolutely literally picked by the USA. Does the term “Coalition Provisional Authority” ring any bells for you?

  17. Dunc says

    Also, just for absolute clarity, with regards to this:

    You think that makes Russia’s annexation okay? Or makes it fine to ignore the fact that it *is* an annexation do you?

    There is exactly one person in this thread making these sorts of arguments, whereby crimes on the part of X are held up as some sort of defence against other, entirely unrelated crimes on the part of Y, and that person is you. I am perfectly happy to call Putin all of the names under the sun, but that doesn’t excuse anything on the part of the US. Similarly, the various crimes and atrocities committed by the US do not excuse any crimes committed by anybody else. I’m not the one trying to divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” here.

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