The world must rightly race to be appalled over the attack on Saturday, 3 October, on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. At least 22 people were killed in the attack, and 37 wounded.
Information about the hospital has been repeatedly communicated to U.S. and Afghan national forces. The U.S. must do more to meet America’s own standards and avoid civilian casualties. NGO facilities, especially those sheltering civilians or aiding the sick and injured, must be protected, and must not be used to launch attacks.
The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians. There must be a full and prompt investigation of this incident.
The Obama standard
So we should expect to hear from the U.S. government, at least, given what has been revealed since Saturday morning.
The opening condemnation above is almost word for word what the U.S. State Department had to say about the IDF attack near an UNRWA school compound in Gaza on 3 August 2014.
US military: There was heavy gunfire near hospital in Kunduz
US to Israel: Militants in area doesn't justify strike pic.twitter.com/kZXVaZ0XB1
— Daniel Paul (@paulrubens) October 5, 2015
Now, interestingly, on that day in 2014, what the IDF struck in Rafah was a Hamas motorcycle outside the school. IDF ordnance didn’t even hit the school. (This was confirmed later by UN investigators, but the information was available at the time.)
But that didn’t faze the U.S. State Department. And its position – Obama’s position – was the exact opposite of what the law of armed conflict provides for.
Obama’s position was that the IDF should not attack Hamas because Hamas was operating near the grounds of a civilian compound with protected status.
I had explained a few days before this event (incident to another one in Jabaliya, in which Hamas was in fact operating on the UN compound) that the law of armed conflict (in this case, the Rome Statute) says the opposite.
The war crime here is that Hamas set up a firing position in a facility that was housing civilian refugees. (See Article 8.2 (b) of the Rome Statute.) .
No one has a right to protection at a Hamas firing position. There is no international law or convention that mandates such protection. None of us could defend ourselves against anything if there were such a mandate. That’s what makes it a war crime to wage combat from behind protected persons or sites: the necessity it creates for attacking them.
But Obama doesn’t see things that way. So, by his lights, his armed forces – indeed, his whole enterprise in Afghanistan – should be investigated for what was an unjustified attack; indeed, very possibly an American war crime.
The same circumstances in Afghanistan
Why an American war crime? Because according to our Afghan allies, the Taliban were doing exactly what Hamas does. They were using the NGO hospital as a base from which to launch attacks on the Afghan forces on the ground in Kunduz, trying to retake the area. The appalling, disgraceful American response was apparently to attack the Taliban firing position, regardless of where it was.
The Washington Post had this report, filed from Kabul, on Sunday evening:
Some Afghan military leaders and politicians on Sunday appeared sympathetic to the controversy that the U.S. military now finds itself embroiled in.
“When insurgents try to use civilians and public places to hide, it makes it very, very difficult, and we understand how this can happen,” Koofi said. “You have two choices: either continue operations to clean up, and that might involve attacks in public places, or you just let the Taliban control. In this case, the public understands we went with the first choice, along with our international allies.”
In Kunduz, the acting governor, Hamdullah Danishi, also suggested that the airstrike was warranted.
He said Taliban fighters had been using the Doctors Without Borders compound to plot and carry out attacks across the city, including firing rocket-propelled grenades from the property.
“The hospital campus was 100 percent used by the Taliban,” Danishi said. “The hospital has a vast garden, and the Taliban were there. We tolerated their firing for some time” before responding.
That last sentence could have been uttered by the IDF at any time in the last 10 years. WaPo also cited this telling point from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (emphasis added):
Carter confirmed that some U.S. troops were in the vicinity of the hospital and that they reported coming under attack. He also confirmed that U.S. fighter aircraft were nearby and opened fire, but he said U.S. military officials could not say for certain that that led to the destruction of the hospital.
He said Kunduz “continues to be a contested area” and that neither U.S. nor Afghan government forces have been able to take control of the hospital compound, further hampering the investigation.
Think about that for moment. In a war zone, what would be preventing an armed force from taking control of a civilian compound? It certainly couldn’t be the civilians innocently practicing medicine inside the compound.
Consider that the hospital continued to function when the Taliban took over Kunduz, and that now allied forces have been “unable” to take control of it. You’d have to be pretty foolish to think that didn’t mean the doctors inside were cooperating, as much as they had to, with the Taliban.
But by all means, let us treat this as a probable war crime, and excoriate the United States and the Afghan national forces for not being willing to let the Taliban shoot from behind hospital beds.
On Monday, reporter Matt Lee grilled State Department spokesman Mark Toner on the blatant double standard in the U.S. response to the Kunduz incident, as opposed to the responses to incidents in Gaza in 2014. Toner hemmed and hawed for an excruciating five or six minutes, never actually addressing it.
Obama clearly needs to tell the Afghans that we will no longer help them defeat the Taliban, if the Taliban terrorists are going to operate from NGO hospitals in the war zone. It’s time to keep our own hands clean and let the Afghans – including all those young girls we’ve encouraged to go to school – take their chances.
Alternatively, the people of the West could cease letting social radicals tell them what to think about important things like morality or appropriateness in war. This alternative course is likely to be more effective for survival.