Senate softball-questioning on Kunduz attack underlines the need for a credible independent investigation

Tuesday’s display at the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which General John Campbell testified about the security situation in Afghanistan and talked a bit about the U.S. airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital last weekend that killed and maimed dozens of civilians, provided one of the clearest indications yet that there is no reason to trust an internal inquiry and that an independent investigation is absolutely necessary.

For the most part, Senate Committee members sidestepped the topic of the Kunduz attack altogether, focusing their questions instead on overall U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, with a bit of discussion on the recent revelations of rampant child abuse, pedophilia and sex slavery in the country by the U.S.’s Afghan allies.

When the subject of the hospital bombing was addressed, the senators generally asked rather mundane questions that avoided tackling the most pertinent issues. No one asked, for example, who had personally authorized the attack, whether the United States knew that the target was a hospital before launching airstrikes, or if it did not know initially, at what point the picture came into focus that U.S. bombs were landing on a medical facility protected under international law.

Instead, questions focused on who had requested the attack, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the committee, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) both asking the general if it was true that the strike was called in by the Afghans.

Gen. Campbell, who currently serves as commander of the Resolute Support Mission and the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, responded to these softball questions by reiterating the latest U.S. account of the atrocity – that it was the Afghans who called in the strike but that the ultimate decision for carrying it out went up the U.S. chain of command, going through a “rigorous” process of vetting the target.

He was asked no follow-up questions on what this “rigorous” process might entail, and if it is indeed so rigorous, why it is that the United States, which had been repeatedly provided the coordinates for the MSF hospital, would have launched a strike on a clearly marked medical facility.

There were also no questions posed to the general about whether it is in fact true that MSF staff had frantically called their contacts in U.S./NATO command to tell them — in real time — that the hospital was under attack, calls which were apparently ignored while the strikes continued in 15-minute intervals for the next hour.

These would have been pertinent questions to ask, because they would have forced the general to go on record regarding what the United States knew and when the United States knew it regarding the target that it was hitting. This is important because if the United States knew that it was bombing a hospital, this would be considered a grave breach of international law – a war crime and an atrocity for which U.S. officials must be held accountable.

Attacking the sick and wounded, as in bombing a hospital, is a clear violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, which states:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

If the United States knew that it was bombing a medical facility, this would also be a grave breach of Customary International Humanitarian Law, as explained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which states on its website:

Medical personnel exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy.

But rather than attempting to determine what the U.S. knew about the target that it bombed for more than an hour early Saturday morning, instead the senators asked technical questions, which seemed geared more towards deflecting and obfuscating the issue than getting to the heart of the matter. The toughest question probably came from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who asked the general whether he would be opposed to a truly independent investigation into the tragedy.

But even Sen. Shaheen engaged in some whitewashing by stating upfront that the tragedy was an “accident,” despite the fact that there is still no indication that the attack on the hospital was not a deliberate and premeditated war crime.

This theme of portraying the atrocity as an accident continued after the hearing, with senators going on television to reiterate the key talking points of the U.S. military’s cover story – namely that this was a terrible mistake and a tragedy but that no one could have ever carried out this sort of crime intentionally.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) went on MSNBC following the hearing to reiterate that the bombing was a “horrible mistake,” and further explained Gen. Campbell’s testimony regarding the allegedly “rigorous vetting” that took place in the U.S. chain of command leading up to and during this assault.

Although Kaine was in the hearing as a member of the Armed Services Committee, he opted not to ask the general any questions about the tragedy. On MSNBC however, he had quite a bit to say about it:

It seems clear that what is taking place is a systematic whitewash of this incident, with all relevant officials assuming their assigned roles to obfuscate and confuse with technocratic jargon and feel-good rhetoric designed to reassure the American people of the moral rectitude of their military. The only problem is that Doctors Without Borders is refusing to play along and is continuing to demand real answers.

The group is seeking to invoke a never-used body, the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, to investigate the U.S. bombing of its hospital. As BBC reported Wednesday,

MSF said it did not trust internal military inquiries into the bombing that killed at least 22 people.

The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) was set up in 1991 under the Geneva Conventions.

The US says last Saturday’s bombing was a mistake. It came amid efforts to reverse a Taliban takeover of Kunduz.

MSF says the co-ordinates of the hospital were well-known and its bombing could not have been a mistake. The aid agency – winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize – has said it is proceeding from the assumption that the attack was a war crime.

MSF is also continuing to plead its case in the media, refusing to allow the military’s PR machine to sweep the atrocity under the rug. This is Doctors Without Borders Executive Director Jason Cone speaking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday:

Supporters of MSF’s calls for an independent investigation include Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam International, and Greenpeace. To add your name to a petition calling for justice for Doctors Without Borders, click here.

msf says enough

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