Editorials

Airstrike at hospital needs outside probe

The Doctors Without Borders hospital is in flames after a U.S. airstrike Saturday in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz.
The Doctors Without Borders hospital is in flames after a U.S. airstrike Saturday in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. Médecins Sans Frontières

The articles on the U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan and the failure of U.S. military training programs appeared four pages apart in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee. But they are two sides of the same terrible story.

Doctors Without Borders says 12 staff members and 10 patients, including three children, were killed Saturday at its hospital in Kunduz province. The Pentagon says the strike was in support of beleaguered Afghan forces trying to recapture the provincial capital from the Taliban and “several innocent civilians were accidentally struck.”

These are the same troops the U.S. military has spent billions to train and equip so that it can finally withdraw from America’s longest war. But if they don’t have the will to fight, or have divided loyalties, it doesn’t do much good. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq and elsewhere, these training programs haven’t produced effective fighting forces. And that requires the U.S. military to back them up with “advisers” on the ground and airstrikes that may not be that precise.

Doctors Without Borders, which has closed the hospital it opened in 2011, is justified in calling for a full, independent and transparent investigation. But it goes too far to condemn the strike as a “war crime” before that inquiry even starts.

There are, however, very troubling questions if the medical charity’s account is accurate. It says that it notified U.S. and Afghan officials of the hospital’s GPS coordinates as recently as four days before the airstrikes, and that the bombardment continued even after it contacted military officials.

The White House said Monday that the U.S. military is exceedingly careful about avoiding civilian casualties and expressed confidence that ongoing investigations will get to the bottom of what happened.

There are three of those investigations: one by the Defense Department, one by the U.S. and Afghanistan, and one by NATO. They are focused on whether the U.S. military knew the hospital was nearby when an AC-130 gunship opened fire, and whether the hospital was being used by the Taliban to launch attacks.

Whatever these internal probes conclude, they will inevitably lack credibility. It’s in the Pentagon’s own interest to cooperate with an outside investigation. (It should also ban “collateral damage” from its vocabulary.)

And whatever actually transpired, this is a tragedy – a reminder of how truly dangerous and courageous it is for Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian groups to help people in war zones.

This should also be another lesson about war. There may be good reasons for military action – to exact retribution, to rescue the innocent from tyranny, to further national security – but once you start a conflict, it’s awfully hard to end it.

So those hawks who want further U.S. military involvement, even ground troops, in Syria’s civil war should answer this: Are they willing to be responsible for that country 10 or 20 years from now?

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