The aerial destruction that rained down on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, a provincial capital in northeast Afghanistan, on October 3 puts an exclamation point to the story of America’s 14 years of warfare in that Central Asian country. At least 22 people were killed—among them doctors, other medical personnel, and patients, including three children—and dozens wounded in the attack.
Beyond the obvious, immediate implications of the massacre—which serves as a reminder that for all of those 14 years, the United States has engaged in a brutal, mismanaged, and ill-conceived war—the ruins of the Kunduz hospital are more broadly a symbol of Washington’s reliance on airpower, including drone strikes and bombers, to combat a host of insurgent groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.
After the events in Kunduz, Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym, MSF, issued a series of scathing statements, demanding an independent investigation “under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed.” Christopher Stokes, MSF’s general director, said that the group is “disgusted” by the statements of Afghan government officials, who justified the attack by claiming that Taliban fighters were present.
“Not a single member of our staff reported any fighting inside the MSF hospital compound prior to the US air strike on Saturday morning,” said Stokes. “The hospital was full of MSF staff, patients, and their caretakers.” And he slammed the United States for its inconsistent statements about the bombing. “Their description of the attack keeps changing,” Stokes noted, “from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government.”
The attack was particularly egregious because MSF had repeatedly supplied the United States with the precise GPS coordinates of the hospital complex before the attack. President Obama’s spokesman called the Kunduz bombing a “profound tragedy” rather than a war crime, and said that the president has complete “confidence” in the investigations being conducted by the Defense Department, NATO, and US and Afghan military officers—but he refused to call for an independent investigation, as demanded by MSF. Despite a personal apology from Obama, the group reiterated its appeal for an independent inquiry to be carried out by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, established under the Geneva Conventions.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been piling up for years, of course—most of them the result of indiscriminate Taliban attacks, including randomly placed IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombings. But a large number have been caused by what the United Nations calls “pro-government” forces: that is, the United States and its allies and the Afghan National Security Forces. In October 2013, in a special issue of The Nation titled “America’s Afghan Victims,” investigative journalist Nick Turse and I wrote a package of stories that provided an account of the carnage in Afghanistan. In it, we tried to cut through the murky smoke screen that has obscured the toll of dead and maimed civilian victims from the start of the war in October 2001 through the end of 2012. We documented 458 separate incidents that resulted in as many as 6,481 civilians killed by US forces during that period, and we provided a detailed interactive database covering every one of those incidents.