Saturday, October 3, 2015

Airstrikes Hit Hospital in Afghanistan

Saturday morning saw the death of 19 people at the sole hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The hospital, run by humanitarian relief group Doctors Without Borders, was bombed repeatedly by what US news sources are increasingly attributing to a US airstrike responding to Taliban activity in the city. According to CNN, 12 volunteer staff and 7 patients were killed. At least 37 others were injured. No Americans were hurt in the hospital; all staff and patients were Afghans.

Left: red dots mark reported Taliban presence, and white stars indicate
location of US airstrikes. Right: aerial view of hospital. (Photo courtesy of
the New York Times)
The US military issued a statement confirming an airstrike at 2:15 AM that might have cause "collateral damage" to a hospital nearby. They claim to have been targeting nearby Taliban rebels firing at US military personnel, but according to Doctors Without Borders, no staff reported having seen fighters in or near the hospital, despite the fact that the international organization treats fighters from both sides. Doctors Without Borders also say that they had given the hospital's exact GPS coordinates to US and Afghan forces days before the attack, as is routine practice. However, the bombing continued for half an hour after the U.S. military and Afghan forces had been notified via telephone.

To date, Obama has issued a statement of condolences and confirmed that the Department of Defense has launched a full investigation. Doctors Without Borders is working on their own "impartial investigation." UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also condemned the incident and called for an impartial investigation.

Nevertheless, Obama also restated that he would continue working closely with the Afghan government and military to "secure their country." Although the Taliban is responsible for 70% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, they nevertheless do not yet possess the power to attack from above, unlike the US, which has come under attack for using its air power to inflict unnecessary civilian causalities. This last strike marks an increase in military activity since the US began withdrawing some of its forces and limiting its targets in 2012.

Doctors Without Borders is protected under international humanitarian law.

Well, when you come down to it, it's all good and fun to bastardize the military, or George Bush, or President Obama. But what could we have done differently? In light of the (mostly ineffectual) War Powers Act, should our legislative body be given the right to check executive action beyond the initial declaration of war? Would this keep incidents such as these to a minimum? Or would our dysfunctional and partisan system simply weigh itself down and play hostage-taking with human lives halfway across the world?


Daniel Jun said...

What does legislative branch involvement have anything to do with improving the, simply put, useless waste of life that was the bombing of the Doctors Without Boarders hospital? Would added bureaucracy really make the war any more effective? Will adding an extra 500 plus voices make unfortunate acts like the bombing any less common? The legislative branch is (no offense intended) full of pencil pushers, lawyers, and the privileged members of society. Adding a bunch of men and women with no experience in war to affect decisions can only end badly.

War only ever ends in someone's tears. It's a terrible tragedy that the good men and women in the hospital were killed. But I don't see how adding what would effectively be MORE partisan participants with party loyalties into regulating the executive branch's decision making would do any good. Too many chiefs only confuse the Indians...

Virginia Hsiao said...

Like Daniel said, this situation is definitely unfortunate and infuriating, but I think it is worth noting that realistically, it is not the first time, and it will not be the last time that civilian injury or causalities result from war. As people of paradox, we like the thought of freedom, but we often forget to account for the potential costs of maintaining such freedom. We like to win war and “defeat” the “bad guys” – the nefarious villain who we somehow think just exists in isolation in a distant land – but we forget that in the fog of war, issues become complex, muddled, and obscured. I am not arguing that the Afghanistan War and the US’s primary goals while entering the war necessarily encompassed the values of freedom, but I think that this particular situation remains more complex than meets the eye.
Addressing Janet’s question regarding potential increases in legislative checks to decrease the prevalence of these incidents, I think that such a proposal is valid, but given that the military already has such a rigid bureaucratic structure, I don’t think that emplacing strict legislative checks is a realistic solution – especially in exigent circumstances, much like this one, which reportedly stemmed from an Afghan request for US air power against the Taliban. The checks and balance system, which the Founding Fathers designed to purposefully slow down the process, would, objectively speaking, place more troops and forces in danger since time can differentiate “victory” from “loss” in war zones. Actually, I looked into more of the military’s process of authorizing an airstrike, and while many of the provisions are situational, I found that assessment of potential damage and civilian casualties actually stands as a large consideration prior to pre-planned airstrikes; however, in time-sensitive strikes, the military commander is authorized and trusted to make a snap judgment prior to striking the determined target. As human judgment remains fraught with complexity, I’m not quite sure how to realistically standardize increased accountability for situations requiring quick judgment. Better training? Better intelligence? More people involved in the process? Computer modeling systems? I think that a solution won’t come in a singular movement, but it will come in an alteration of military culture over time.

Another interesting point is that, according to a Washington Post article,

the aircraft used in the airstrike (it’s called the AC-130, if you were wondering) depends on “visual targeting” as opposed to coordinates. Accordingly, the military cites this as a possible explanation why, in spite of having the hospital’s coordinates, the airstrike, which occurred in the dead of night, “accidentally” ended up hitting the hospital. This does not legitimize the “collateral damage,” but it provides an insight into the shortcomings of the system. As opposed to having greater oversight from the legislative branch, which remains distanced from the realities and technicalities of war, I think that, in general, the checks need to start from those with the context and on the battlefield.
On another note - Although Obama has formally issued condolences for the accident, the president often carries a societal pressure and is blamed for issues he is not directly associated with. In this particular case, who does the responsibility fall on? How might we incorporate such a responsibility with accountability? What other things can we do to prevent or mitigate further occurrences while keeping in mind the complexity of the issue?