Obama administration officials said they’re investigating an airstrike in Afghanistan that killed 22 people at a Doctors Without Borders hospital, while the Nobel-winning medical aid group accused the White House of shifting stories.
The hospital was struck Saturday morning, with some Afghan officials claiming that Taliban were hiding out there. Kunduz fell to the Taliban late last month, and Afghan forces immediately swung into action to try to take back the country’s fifth-largest city.
En route to Madrid, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters Sunday that the investigation into the bombing, which killed 12 Doctors Without Borders staff members, would be conducted “both within U.S. forces and with the government of Afghanistan, and also of course NATO and the ISAF mission.”
“That investigation with those three parts to it will be — and needs to be — full, transparent,” Carter said. “There will be accountability as always with these incidents, if that is required.”
Carter said his office had contacted Doctors Without Borders over the weekend to convey the same. He acknowledged that “yes, there was American air action in that area, and that American forces there were engaged in the general vicinity. And at some point in the course of the events there did report that they, themselves, were coming under attack. That much I think we can safely say.”
The Defense secretary wouldn’t say if the hospital took American fire, but just noted “there was definitely destruction in those structures and the hospital.”
Kunduz, he said, is “a complicated and confused situation on the ground. And the Afghan forces are in the process of retaking the city center and then holding the city center, and that’s where the ISAF forces are involved in supporting their operations.”
Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters today that Afghan forces on Saturday “advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. Forces.”
“An air strike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck,” Campbell said. “This is different from initial reports which indicated that U.S. Forces were threatened and that the air strike was called on their behalf. As it’s been reported, I’ve ordered a thorough investigation into this tragic incident and the investigation is ongoing.”
“…As you know the United States Military takes extraordinary steps to avoid harm to civilians. However, the Taliban have purposely chosen a fight from within a heavily urbanized area, purposely placing civilians in harm’s way.”
Campbell is back in D.C. to testify tomorrow morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The general said it was an AC-130 gunship that fired on the hospital. However, he refused to answer any questions that delved into the rules of engagement. Campbell added that he expects a preliminary report in the next couple of days.
Doctors Without Borders, meanwhile, has called the attack a “war crime” and says they’re “disgusted” at Afghan officials’ assertion that Taliban were sheltered at the hospital.
“Their description of the attack keeps changing – from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government,” the group’s general director, Christopher Stokes, said today. “The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and [Médecins Sans Frontières] staff. The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack.”
“With such constant discrepancies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical,” Stokes added.
On Sunday, Doctors Without Borders said that what “amounts to an admission of a war crime” is the statements that “imply that Afghan and U.S. forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital – with more than 180 staff and patients inside – because they claim that members of the Taliban were present.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest responded to calls for an independent investigation today by noting that President Obama “obviously has confidence” in the official investigations “to provide that full accounting that he seeks, and his expectation is that details won’t be whitewashed, they’ll be a full accounting of what exactly transpired, so that if it’s necessary to take steps to prevent something like this from ever happening again, that those reforms are implemented promptly and effectively.”
“I wouldn’t use the label like that because this is something that continues to be under investigation,” Earnest said of Doctors Without Borders’ “war crime” characterization.
“The thing I do think warrants mentioning is that there is no country in the world and no military in the world that goes to greater lengths and places a higher premium on avoiding civilians causalities than the United States Department of Defense,” he added.