While testifying before a Senate panel on Tuesday, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan General John Campbell changed—for the fourth time in as many days—the military’s account of its bombing of a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in the city of Kunduz on Saturday. The shift means Pentagon officials have now described the deadly attack alternately as “collateral damage,” a mistake, the fault of Afghan soldiers, and finally, the work of U.S. Special Forces.
The aid agency, furious with the military’s shifting narrative of the attack that killed 22 people—including 12 staff members and 10 patients—has stated once again its belief that what occurred is nothing short of a “war crime” and argued only a independent, outside investigation could be trusted to probe the incident.
“This attack cannot be brushed aside as a mere mistake or an inevitable consequence of war,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, president of MSF International, in a statement released Tuesday. “Nothing can excuse violence against patients, medical workers and health facilities.”
“Under International Humanitarian Law hospitals in conflict zones are protected spaces. Until proven otherwise, the events of last Saturday amount to an inexcusable violation of this law,” Liu continued. “We are working on the presumption of a war crime.
However, in the four different version of events provided by the U.S., the term “war crime” did not appear once.
In testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee delivered Tuesday, General John Campbell said that U.S. Special Forces called in the ground strike and were in direct communication with the aircraft that launched the attack.
“To be clear, the decision to provide aerial fires was a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command,” he said. “A hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”
The statements marked a shift from those issued Monday, when Campbell emphasized the role of Afghan commanders in calling in the strike but ultimately indicated that the bombing was justified due to Taliban proximity. “Unfortunately, the Taliban decided to remain in the city and fight from within, knowingly putting civilians at significant risk of harm,” he said.
On Sunday, the military said that the bombing occurred in the vicinity of the hospital, which had accidentally been struck.
On Saturday, U.S. Army Colonal Brian Tribus, spokesperson for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said that the airstrike was conducted “against individuals threatening the force. The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby facility.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest also avoided using the term “war crime” in statements made Monday, instead calling the incident a “profound tragedy.”
MSF, which says it informed coalition and Afghan officials of its GPS coordinates before and during the attack—to no avail—raised disturbing questions about the bombing. According to the organization, the bombing targeted the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, and physiotherapy ward—leaving surrounding buildings mostly unharmed.
“Statements from the Afghanistan government have claimed that Taliban forces were using the hospital to fire on Coalition forces,” said Liu. “These statements imply that Afghan and U.S. forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital, which amounts to an admission of a war crime.”
MSF is not alone in sounding the alarm. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said on Saturday, “The seriousness of the incident is underlined by the fact that, if established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime.”
In an interview with Common Dreams, Suraia Sahar, organizer with Afghans United for Justice, emphasized that Saturday’s bombing—while more visible due to MSF’s status as a foreign organization—was “nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Both the U.S. and Afghan forces have a repeated history of faulty intelligence and criminal cover-ups in their military operations in Afghanistan,” said Sahar. “Thanks to MSF’s relentless campaign for an independent investigation, there is a small window of opportunity for them to be held accountable for their complicity in war crimes.”
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is weighing whether to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, defying its own pledge to reduce the presence to 1,000 military personnel for the purpose of embassy security by the end of next year.
In his statements Tuesday, Campbell sought to use this latest attack to bolster the argument for a prolonged U.S. presence. Responding to a question about whether the troop draw-down should continue according to the Obama administration’s initial plan, Campbell said, “I do believe we have to provide our senior leadership with options different from the current plan.”