War Crime and Punishment

This is a summary of the official U.S. military report. I suspect it is highly sanitized.

Death from the Sky
by May Jeong, The Intercept
Apr. 28 2016, 2:31 p.m.

On Friday, October 2, the city lay quiet, with just one building lit up against the dark sky. Most other international organizations had evacuated when the fighting began, but the Kunduz Trauma Center run by Médecins Sans Frontières remained open throughout the battle for the city. It was one of the few buildings with a generator. Throughout the week, violence seemed to lap against the walls of the hospital without ever engulfing it. All around the 35,620-square-meter compound, the site of an old cotton factory, fighting ebbed and flowed. Doctors and nurses marked the intensity of battle by the freshly wounded who arrived at the gate. According to MSF, the hospital treated 376 emergency patients between September 28, when the city fell, and October 2.

The last week had seen much bloodshed, but Friday was uncharacteristically calm: no fighting nearby, no gunshots, no explosions. “I remember seeing a child flying a kite,” recalled Dr. Kathleen Thomas, “and thought to myself, today is a calm day.” That evening, while more than 100 MSF employees and caretakers slept in a basement below the hospital, several staff members remained awake, preparing for what the night might bring. There were 105 patients in the hospital, including three or four Afghan government soldiers and about 20 Taliban fighters, two of whom appeared to be of high rank. Hospital staff stepped outside to take in the bracing autumn air, something they’d lately refrained from doing for fear of stray bullets. The night sky was open and clear.

Some 7,000 feet above, an AC-130 gunship was preparing to fire. At 2:08 a.m., on October 3, a missile began its descent, gliding through a cloudless sky.

The picture that emerges from these firsthand accounts, as well as from interviews with several high-ranking Afghan officials, is one of remarkable chaos and uncertainty, even by the standards of war. Those on the ground said it was not clear who was in charge, and those in charge seemed not to have had a clear understanding of what was happening on the ground at any given point before, during, and after the fall of the city.

For some time, Molinie told me, something had been bothering him. “It was never clear who was in charge of what,” he said, in reference to the metastasizing 15-year-old conflict. The current war in Afghanistan was being run by two distinct commands: NATO’s Operation Resolute Support (RS) and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan’s Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Resolute Support was a non-combat mission with a limited mandate to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces. Freedom’s Sentinel, successor to Operation Enduring Freedom, was the latest version of America’s so-called war on terror. It was meant to hunt down al Qaeda remnants, but without the rigor of public scrutiny, Freedom’s Sentinel seemed to have spiraled beyond its already vague mandate.

When I asked Col. Michael Lawhorn, spokesperson for both NATO and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, to explain the differing missions of the two commands, he said: “Think of it as a big box marked RS and inside that you have a small box marked Freedom’s Sentinel but inside that box you have two smaller boxes marked Resolute Support and another one marked counterterrorism.” When I inquired how we might tell all these different boxes apart, Lawhorn conceded, “It’s not always clear under what authority an action is taken.” The same was true, he said, of what happened in Kunduz.

An AC-130 is a plane built around a gun. Its pylon turns allow for the Gatling-style cannon to fire as many as 6,000 rounds per minute. It is the most lethal air weapons platform: It flies longer, carries more weapons, and is deadlier than any other aircraft. The same gunship was responsible for capturing Kunduz from the Taliban and al Qaeda in the early days of the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Afghanistan. Then, as now, up to 14 crew members on the plane would have been assisted by a joint terminal attack coordinator on the ground, who would have walked the crew through training the 105 mm howitzer on the target to aim, then fire.

By the time the attack was over, the intensive care unit, the emergency room, and the operating theaters were burned to a husk. The corrugated tin roof had peeled off, and only the walls remained standing, pockmarked with cannon fire. The aircraft had fired 211 shells, killing 42 patients and staff who had trusted in the hospital’s neutral and protected status. Patients had burned in their beds. Six charred bodies awaited forensic investigation to determine their identity; they had been burned beyond recognition.

The AC-130 had destroyed the main building of the MSF hospital, but all other structures remained intact. The trajectory of the damage neatly matched the GPS coordinates that Molinie had sent around just three days earlier. It was evident that the Americans were involved, but in the early days, no one knew in what capacity or to what end.

(T)he U.S. military struggled to keep its story straight. Officials initially denied that U.S. forces had attacked the MSF hospital at all, saying that the building might have sustained collateral damage from an adjacent airstrike. Gen. John F. Campbell, the top American commander in Afghanistan, stated that U.S. forces were taking fire when the airstrike was called in. On October 4, Ash Carter, the secretary of defense, admitted that “there was American air action in that area” and that “there was definitely destruction in those structures and the hospital.” The narrative shifted the next day when Gen. Campbell said Afghan forces had come under fire and called in the airstrike.

MSF called for an independent investigation, denouncing the attack as a war crime. After a six-week investigation, Gen. Campbell held a briefing in Kabul, on the day before Thanksgiving, and presented what was now the official version of the events: The attack was the result of a cascading series of human errors and mechanical failures.

According to Campbell, the aircrew believed they were coming to the rescue of ground forces that were taking fire, a “troops in contact situation.” They rushed to take off, skipping the pre-mission briefing.

Campbell said the crew was given a new mission after takeoff, an order to bomb a local office of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan government’s primary intelligence agency, that had been taken over by the Taliban. “During the flight,” he said, “the electronic systems onboard the aircraft malfunctioned, preventing the operation of an essential command and control capability and eliminating the ability of aircraft to transmit video, send and receive email, or send and receive electronic messages.” The crew entered GPS coordinates for the NDS facility, but the electronic system brought the plane to an empty field instead. From the empty field, they located the “closest, largest building” that matched the commander’s description. The internal NATO investigation found the aircrew did not observe hostile activity.

Gen. Campbell said that the military had not followed its own rules of engagement during the Kunduz airstrike. The U.S. commander who called in the strike did not have eyes on the target; he was several hundred meters away, in the visual range of neither the NDS nor the MSF hospital. Nor was the strike necessary for force protection.

In contrast to the U.S. military’s narrative, the Afghan government’s response has been more consistent. Immediately following the attack, Afghan authorities came out saying the strike was justified because the hospital was a Taliban stronghold.

Sediq Sediqi, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, said that 10 to 15 terrorists were hiding in the hospital. National security adviser Hanif Atmar said the government would take full responsibility, as “we are without doubt, 100 percent convinced the place was occupied by Taliban,” according to meeting notes reviewed by the AP. Acting Defense Minister Masoom Stanekzai also told AP that the hospital was used as shelter for insurgents.

In his November briefing, Gen. Campbell said that the “individuals most closely associated with the incident have been suspended from their duty positions,” pending disciplinary measures. Yet the U.S. has steadfastly refused to countenance an independent investigation, which has led to suspicions of a cover-up. “Had the authorities said it is a terrible mistake from day one, then it would have been easier to believe that it was a mistake,” MSF’s Molinie told me. “But because in the beginning Afghan senior officials said the hospital was bombed because it was a Taliban base, it is difficult for us to swallow the 100 percent mistake scenario.”

ore than 20 Afghan government officials and members of security forces interviewed for this article held as an unassailable belief that the Taliban had attacked Afghan forces from inside the hospital. That deeply held conviction remained resolute even in the face of mounting counterevidence.

“[The fall of] Kunduz was a considerable loss of face for the government,” the former government adviser told me. National security adviser Hanif Atmar was “belligerent,” he said, on the issue of Kunduz. “He is a very thoughtful and intelligent person. He wouldn’t jump to conclusions. But in this case, it didn’t seem like he wanted to find the truth.”

“It was a very emotional time for everybody,” the former government adviser said. “It was a huge loss of prestige. Morale was zero.”

In this strategic and emotional nadir, according to Mark Bowden, the United Nations deputy special representative for Afghanistan, there arose a feeling that “things previously not legitimate became more legitimate.” The general sense among the Afghan forces was that the war was going nowhere good. In a losing battle, all becomes fair, including the bombing of a hospital that many had come to believe was harboring insurgents.

Saleh, the author of the 200-page Afghan commission report on the fall of Kunduz and head of one of the many informal political coalitions opposing the current government, believed that the “hospital sanctity had been violated” and held out as evidence 130 hours of recorded conversations with more than 600 interlocutors. “I spoke with the MSF country director,” Saleh told me recently. “They don’t deny that the hospital was infiltrated by the Taliban.”

MSF has consistently denied that armed fighters were present in the hospital.

Saleh claimed that Afghan forces had been taking fire from the southeastern wall of the hospital, used as a shield by the insurgents. Ismail Masood, chief of staff to the governor of Kunduz, who sat in on meetings with the NDS and other intelligence agencies, said he had also heard that “it was in the parking area to the east where the Taliban were present.”

Neighbors, however, remembered something different. Abdul Wahab, a gatekeeper working across the street from the hospital, told me that the Taliban regularly brought their injured to the trauma center, but that he never saw any armed insurgents enter it, nor did he recall seeing any weapons fire coming from the hospital. Abdul Maroof, whose warehouse shares its north wall with the hospital, said he saw “as many as a hundred” Taliban fighters entering the NDS office across the street, but never the hospital.

MSF, for its part, stated that on the day of the strike, “No fighting was taking place around the hospital, no planes were heard overhead, no gunshots were reported, nor explosions in the vicinity of the hospital.”

A former Afghan special forces captain was indignant at what he considered unwarranted media coverage of the hospital strike. “This is going to limit airstrikes,” he told me. “And without airstrikes, we would have lost Kunduz. We need the Americans to stand with us,” he said. “Stories like these are going to hurt innocent people. When Daesh take over Afghanistan, the first person to be raped or killed will be you, the foreigner.”

“Afghans have little consideration for the Geneva Conventions,” a former senior Western official told me. “Their main concern is continuing to have U.S. backing and aerial support. Their biggest fear after the strike was that this would put a chill on their being able to request U.S. air support when shit hits the fan.”

Maj. Abdul Kabir, the air liaison officer, wanted me to understand how difficult war can be. “Will you let your men get killed because of a silly rule? Are you saying fighting is easy?” I said that I had never been in such a situation but could imagine the challenge. “From one side, you have the Taliban attacking you, and from another side, you have your soldiers saying they are just meters away. And then we have these international rules that make it difficult to fight the enemy.”

Lt. Abdullah Gard, who heads the Ministry of Interior’s Quick Reaction Force, said he had been unhappy about the hospital ever since the MSF opened a clinic in Chardara district, a Taliban stronghold. MSF had noticed that the patients were experiencing delays that resulted in loss of limb, or life, and so last June, the group opened the stabilization post on the other side of the front line. To Gard and his men, that sealed the fate of the hospital. In the eyes of the besieged Afghan military fighting a losing war, MSF had veered too far to the other side. In the binaries that dictate the conflict, in which only two positions are made possible, being a neutral player was an untenable position. War makes monsters of the other; those who do not stand with us become those who stand against us. “They are seen as belligerents in the fight rather than an impartial group,” the security analyst based in northern Afghanistan told me. “In the government’s eyes, Chardara went too far.”

Gard spoke of MSF with the personal hatred reserved for the truly perfidious. He accused the group of “patching up fighters and sending them back out,” a line I heard repeatedly. Cmdr. Abdul Wahab, head of the unit that guarded the provincial chief of police compound, told me he could not understand why in battle an insurgent could be killed, but the minute he was injured, he would be taken to a hospital and given protective status. Wouldn’t it be easier, he asked, wouldn’t the war be less protracted or bloody if they were allowed to march in and take men when they were most compromised? He had visited the MSF hospital three times to complain. Each time a foreign doctor explained the hospital’s neutral status and its no-weapons policy, which mystified him.

On March 2, Gen. Campbell left his position without a promotion, raising suspicion that his involvement, or at least his culpability, in the Kunduz strike may be much larger than has been publicly revealed. He will retire on May 1. Campbell had been rumored to be next in line to head U.S. Central Command, the “heir apparent.” But the MSF incident appeared to have “played a role in Campbell being put out to pasture,” a former Western official said.

On March 16, U.S. defense officials indicated that more than a dozen ground-level U.S. military personnel had been disciplined for misconduct leading to the strike.

Deliberately targeting a hospital is a war crime, after all, but so is the indiscriminate killing of civilians outside a hospital. And it’s worth noting, according to a Western security analyst who is an expert on Kunduz, that “even if they had struck the NDS headquarters, there still would have been civilian casualties.” The NDS office, which the U.S. military has said was the intended target, stands in a residential neighborhood, as do the private home and the tea factory that were also bombed on the night of the MSF hospital strike. An AC-130, the analyst pointed out, is a disproportionate and indiscriminate weapon, not appropriate for use in civilian areas in the dead of night.

A former Afghan special forces commander who was at the command and control center in Kunduz during the fight assured me I would never get to the bottom of the attack. The reason why I couldn’t figure out exactly what had happened, he said, was the fog of war. “Ground truth is impossible to know. Even those who were there wouldn’t be able to tell you what they saw.” Not the MSF internal investigation, not the joint Afghan-NATO inquiry, not the Saleh commission, and certainly not the 5,000-page military investigation by U.S. Central Command would tell us what happened that night, he assured me. “Have you ever been in a fire fight? It passes like a dream.” The final sentence of the Saleh report echoed his sentiment. “Facts are never solid and we cannot feel them and they will remain this way.”

What is solid, however, are the 211 shells that were fired at a hospital in northern Afghanistan one night last October, and that those shells were felt by the 42 men, women, and children who were killed, and that they will remain that way, victims of incompetence or prejudice or both. Ground truth may be elusive, but it exists; someone along the military chain of command gave an order, which directly resulted in the loss of innocent lives.

The Joke of U.S. Justice and “Accountability” When They Bomb a Hospital
by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept
Apr. 29 2016, 10:37 a.m.

Ever since the U.S. last October bombed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Kunduz, Afghanistan, the U.S. vehemently denied guilt while acting exactly like a guilty party would. First, it changed its story repeatedly. Then, it blocked every effort – including repeated demands from MSF – to have an independent investigation determine what really happened. As May Jeong documented in a richly reported story for The Intercept yesterday, the Afghan government – rather than denying that the hospital was targeted – instead repeatedly claimed that doing so was justified; moreover, they were sympathetic to calls for an independent investigation, which the U.S. blocked. What is beyond dispute, as Jeong wrote, is that the “211 shells that were fired . . . were felt by the 42 men, women, and children who were killed.” MSF insisted the bombing was “deliberate,” and ample evidence supports that charge.

Despite all this, the U.S. military is about to release a report that, so predictably, exonerates itself from all guilt; it was, of course, all just a terribly tragic mistake. Worse, reports The Los Angeles Times‘ W.J. Hennigan, “no one will face criminal charges.”

The only law to which the U.S. government is subject is its own interests. U.S. officials scoffed at global demands for a real investigation into what took place here, and then doled out “punishments” of counseling, training classes, and letters of reprimand for those responsible for this carnage. That’s almost a worse insult, a more extreme expression of self-exoneration and indifference, than no sanctions at all. But that’s par for the course in a country that has granted full-scale legal immunity for those who perpetrated the most egregious crimes: from the systemic fraud that caused the 2008 financial crisis to the worldwide regime of torture the U.S. government officially implemented.

Yesterday in Syria, an MSF-run hospital was targeted with an airstrike, almost certainly deliberately, by what was very likely the Syrian government or the Russians, killing at least 50 patients and doctors, including one of the last pediatricians in Aleppo. On behalf of the U.S. government, Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced: “We are outraged by yesterday’s airstrikes in Aleppo on the al Quds hospital supported by both Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which killed dozens of people, including children, patients and medical personnel.” On the list of those with even minimal credibility to denounce that horrific airstrike, Kerry and his fellow American officials do not appear.


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