While the world’s attention zeroed in on the attacks in Brussels, the U.S. made a stunning admission of responsibility for an attack of its own last year in Afghanistan: the deadly bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Kunduz.
“As commander,” said Gen. John W. Nicholson, who now commands U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, “I wanted to come to Kunduz personally and stand before the families, and the people of Kunduz, to deeply apologize for the events.”
Those “events” comprised a bombardment via airstrike on the hospital on October 3, 2015 — and left 42 people dead and 37 injured.
“I grieve with you for your loss and suffering,” Nicholson added, “and humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.”
His apology might ring hollow to many, considering circumstances surrounding the bombing, as well as what could be deemed an attempt by the U.S. to cover its tracks in the days and weeks that followed. What eventually emerged were terrifying accounts from witnesses on the scene which included reports of the U.S. shooting at people as they fled the hospital.
MSF issued many statements following the attack — one described the bombing:
“A series of multiple, precise and sustained airstrikes targeted the main hospital building, leaving the rest of the buildings in the MSF compound comparatively untouched. This specific building of the hospital correlates exactly with the GPS coordinates provided to the parties of the conflict (GPS coordinates were taken directly in front of the main hospital building that was hit with the airstrikes).”
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MSF’s mission is to provide needed medical care to anyone situated in a conflict area, regardless of their affiliation — but no weapons of any kind are allowed inside their facilities. Also, GPS coordinates are taken and given to all parties involved in fighting so those facilities aren’t accidentally bombed. In the case of Kunduz, this had been done shortly before the bombs hit.
To MSF and international observers, this meant the bombing wasn’t accidental, as the U.S. finally conceded — particularly in light of another statement from workers who had been on the scene:
“Many staff describe people being shot, most likely from the plane [circling overhead], as people tried to flee the main hospital building that was being hit with each airstrike. Some accounts mention shooting that appear[ed] to follow the movement of people on the run.”
In fact, MSF accused the United States of committing a war crime for the attack — and demanded a full investigation into the events. Officials, including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, fumbled through press conferences in the weeks afterward, in an ostensible attempt to claim the U.S. would hold the appropriate parties responsible. In fact, four different stories were given by authorities in four days, which didn’t lend any credibility to the U.S.’ claim the hospital had not been purposely targeted.
But anyone paying attention to MSF descriptions of the attack quickly realized the U.S. had at least made a grave mistake, and likely worse.
“We need a clear commitment that the act of providing medical care will never make us a target,” MSF International President Joanne Liu asserted in a press release at the time. “We need to know whether the rules of war still apply.”
Ultimately, the U.S. found the deadly bombing resulted largely from human error and was “tragic but avoidable.”
To add insult to injury, the twelve US military personnel, used as scapegoats for the deadly attack, have been issued “administrative punishments” – but no criminal charges.
Médecins Sans Frontières’ Kunduz hospital facility shut down — but the nightmarish attack on its humanitarian staff lingers in the minds of many. Though Nicholson’s apology certainly provides a modicum of U.S.' culpability in the bombing, for those in the hospital complex that day, it’s far too little — and way too late.