In the early hours of Oct. 3, two weekends ago, an American AC-130 gunship executed what its operators thought to be a standard airstrike: more than an hour of bombardment using heavy cannons and possibly even high-explosive munitions against its target.
When the dust had settled, however, the result was not a devastating strike against Taliban forces but a tragic and unforgivable attack on an active hospital.
The hospital, staffed by doctors from the international humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders (DWB), was treating casualties from the latest battle in Afghanistan, in which Taliban forces seized control of Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan.
The previous battle, which resulted in Taliban victory by Sept. 28, left 400 wounded, mostly from stray gunfire and mortar shells.
The hospital had been previously renovated by Doctors Without Borders, known internationally as Medecins Sans Frontieres, making it the most advanced medical care facility in the region.
As a result, the hospital bore the brunt of the battle, treating those who were injured in its immediate aftermath. Among these casualties were Taliban soldiers, who were treated on the condition that they surrender their weapons.
Once the Taliban fighters had surrendered their weapons, they were treated exactly like any other patient.
Nevertheless, DWB officials insist that the hospital had maintained its autonomy, and it was respected by the Taliban forces in the region.
According to one of the compound’s guards interviewed by the Washington Post, “[e]ven the Taliban didn’t harm wounded Afghan security forces taken to the hospital.”
DWB defended their choice to treat Taliban fighters by pointing to the Geneva Conventions, which state that injured combatants on either side are to be treated as non-combatants and healed if possible.
The airstrike left at least 22 dead.
In the aftermath of the attack many are, of course, seeking answers. First and foremost among the interested parties is DWB itself, which has called upon the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, a group set up by the Geneva Conventions to investigate possible war crimes.
DWB is looking to possibly prosecute the attack as a war crime, calling it an unsolicited attack against a non-combatant medical facility.
The U.S. has been struggling to sort out the details of what went on that night.
According to the Pentagon, sudden and furious fighting erupted late Friday night, and Afghan security forces desperately requested U.S. support. As fighting approached the hospital, U.S. advisors mobilized the gunship.
Given basic information concerning the locations of allied and enemy forces, the crew of the gunship approached the hospital and entered a holding pattern.
The crew also reported that sensors had detected Taliban forces entering and firing from the hospital, a point which DWB vehemently denies.
Regardless, U.S. combat doctrines expressly prohibit attacking a hospital without giving prior notice, something notably lacking from the event Saturday night.
Since, no matter the circumstances, U.S. doctrine forbids such attacks, the sole question that remains is whether the gunship’s crew or their commanders knew the targeted building was a hospital.
Another important question is who actually requested the strike. Although Afghan security forces were in the region, Afghan administrators are unsure whether their forces were the ones to call in the strike.
As the investigation begins, the Pentagon and the President have been urgently working to clean up the mess.
President Obama, after being informed of the tragedy, called DWB president Dr. Joanne Liu, expressing his sympathies and extending his apologies. Nevertheless, the organization is looking for a third-party investigation of the incident by international observers.
This past Saturday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a press statement that, “US Forces-Afghanistan has the authority to make condolence payments and payments toward repair of the hospital.” How much these payments will be, and who they will be made to, is an open question.
Whether or not the strike was made deliberately against the hospital, the incident poses some very challenging questions for U.S. air power.
Although unquestionably the most powerful air force in the world, the U.S. Air Force has had trouble applying their power precisely.
How the U.S.A.F. can improve the situation is an important question to ask. Without a better way to differentiate non-combatant from foe, they will continue to make news as an imprecise and thoughtless mess-maker in the world.