The reason the U.S. military is having so much trouble explaining why its fighter jets bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan is that no explanation will suffice.
“Even war has rules,” Dr. Joanne Liu, the charity’s international president, told the United Nations Office at Geneva in a speech. One of those rules is that hospitals where medical personnel treat sick and wounded civilians are safe zones, off limits to fighting.
The attack on Saturday cannot be chalked up to “collateral damage.” It cannot be called an accident, or blamed on false reports from Afghanistan’s forces on the ground.
Those are all explanations put forth so far by U.S. authorities. But the military was aware of the coordinates of the hospital, which had 180 staff and patients inside when it was hit. The prolonged attack killed 12 staff members and 10 patients, including three children. It forced the international charity, a source of hope for besieged residents, to leave the city of Kunduz. There is no justification for what happened.
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After days of obfuscation, Gen. John F. Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, seemed to get closer to the truth when he told a U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday that the strike was “a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command” and that “a hospital was mistakenly struck.” Campbell’s aides told the New York Times that the general believes rules governing use of air power were broken.
Much is not yet known, and the military owes a full explanation. But the shifting and inaccurate rationales put forth so far already have undermined trust.
Not surprisingly, Liu has called for an investigation apart from those underway by the U.S. military, NATO and the Afghan forces. She wants the matter investigated by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission established by the Geneva Conventions.
Created in 1991, the commission has never been used and it’s not clear how it would work at this point. But some independent body should be authorized to investigate the airstrike, and the U.S. should cooperate.
America is choosing to engage in Middle East conflicts through bombings, not ground forces. That’s probably the better of two bad options. But some mistakes can’t be brushed off as such. There must be accountability for the weekend tragedy that left patients burning in their beds as a result of U.S. bombs.