October 5, 2015

Médecins Sans Frontières accuses the U.S. Air Force of a war crime - ludicrous

The fact that I have to write this disgusts me. I just finished an interview on CNN (in my role as a paid military analyst) to discuss the latest accusations from the international medical relief organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known in English as "Doctors without Borders."

I have great respect for MSF - they are usually found in areas where other medical personnel will not go, mostly in areas underserved by their own governments or areas ravaged by war. In almost all cases, doctors and nurses serving in these areas do so at great personal risk.

Kunduz, Afghanistan fits the description exactly, being both underserved by the Afghan government and the scene of an ongoing battle between the Taliban and Afghan forces. Kunduz recently fell to the Taliban, the first major city to fall to the group since 2001. The Afghan forces attempting to retake the city were supported by U.S. special operations forces on the ground and U.S. Air Force fighters and gunships in the sky.

The MSF-operated hospital in Kunduz - easily the best medical facility in the area - was severely damaged by what MSF claims was "aerial bombardment" during the fighting in the dark, early hours of Saturday. As a result, 22 people were killed, including MSF staff and patients.

Obviously, this is a tragedy - but to immediately label this as a war crime perpetrated by the U.S. Air Force is contemptible.

Let's look at the statement issued by Christopher Stokes, MSF’s general director: "Under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed, MSF demands that a full and transparent investigation into the event be conducted by an independent international body. There can be no justification for this abhorrent attack on our hospital."

Mr. Stokes went on to claim that the hospital’s main building was "hit with precision" for more than an hour, even after it alerted American and Afghan military officials. They claim - and I have no reason to doubt it - that the organization provided the GPS coordinates of the hospital to Afghan and American authorities. Unfortunately, providing locational data does not immunize facilities from being caught in crossfires.

No doubt Mr. Stokes is angry and upset about the incident at the hospital - we all regret any loss of innocent lives. That said, the director general needs to carefully consider his choice of words. Accusing the U.S. Air Force of a war crime with no facts to back it up is beyond the pale.

First of all, Mr. Stokes has no way of knowing what caused the damage to the hospital. While the current thinking is that an American AC-130 gunship was responsible for the mistaken attack, it may turn out that the damage was caused by errant mortar or rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) rounds fired by the Taliban, both in use that night near the hospital compound.

Beyond that, the words "under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed" is accusing the U.S. Air Force of intentionally firing on a hospital. I find that insulting and unnecessarily inflammatory. Stokes doesn't know what happened - that is why there are multiple investigations into this incident.

Does Mr. Stokes have any harsh words for the Taliban, whose attacks on Kunduz precipitated the entire confrontation? Any demands for investigations into war crimes committed by these Islamist thugs? According to the Afghan police commander on scene in Kunduz, Taliban fighters were using the hospital compound for cover - a charge vehemently denied by Mr. Stokes.

As a retired U.S. Air Force officer, I know that this tragedy was not an intentional attack on a medical facility - that is not who we are, not what we do. If Mr. Stokes believes that, perhaps he needs to find another line of work where flights of fiction and fantasy are part of the job description.