Saturday, October 10, 2015

IT Was No Mistake When US Bombed Kunduz Hospital

By Michael S. Rozeff

The gist of my post on Kunduz is my suspicion that American forces knew what they were doing and intentionally bombed the hospital. The post contains supporting reasons based on my general understanding of combat procedures, but I’m not personally acquainted with such procedures and haven’t ever seen them in operation in Afghanistan or anywhere else. Therefore, I’m gratified to learn from a retired lieutenant colonel who had a command near Kunduz advising an Afghan National Army (ANA) battalion that multiple procedures greatly reduce the odds of a mistaken bombing of the hospital.

I will quote his e-mail:

“At the time, in 2010, there were still US SF [special forces] teams in Kunduz and Baghlan. The German army had a large presence in Kunduz. All of the hospital locations were known and plotted by US and NATO forces. There could have been NO mistake that what was being targeted was a hospital. When I read of the incident I was appalled that anyone would decide to target a hospital without extraordinary circumstances compelling the decision.
“We (US & NATO) know that the ANA or and ANP will fabricate stories to get air support or troop commitments from us. I knew that every interaction with the Afghans would include gamesmanship that is normal in their society. Could this strike have come from a naive acceptance of a request from the ANA? Only if the SF team failed to plot the known location of the hospital and verify the situation there. AND if the AC-130 crew also failed to plot the location of the hospital and failed to check the situation at the hospital with its seniors. AND if the headquarter element that monitors ALL radio interactions also failed to plot or check for the location of the grid provided in the close air support call.

“As an example of what a US aircraft can confirm: On May 26, 2010 my advisers and I were engaged in a large battle with our ANA battalion in an effort to retake a village in Baghlan. On two occasions I spotted military age males in locations where I had received fire earlier in the day and requested that the F-15s overhead verify if these men had weapons. Neither did and no close air requests were made and if I had requested them the F-15 pilots would have refused to make the bombing runs. Our aircraft can, with very high certainty, verify if a person is armed.”

There are several separate checks involved and it is their independence from one another that is supposed to reduce the probability of error. If, for example, there is a 1 in 10 chance of an error at each level, the chance of 5 independent errors is 1 in 100,000. The SF team would have to make two mistakes, fail to plot the hospital’s known location and fail to verify the situation. The AC-130 would have to make two more mistakes, fail to plot the location of the hospital and fail to check with their seniors. The headquarters would have to make the mistake of not plotting the hospital’s location.

But if these actions are not independent and if there is an element of persuasion or contagion or perpetuated misjudgment or battlefield heat and fog within the communications, then the chance of error becomes larger. That kind of error arises from incompetence. I do not suspect such incompetence, but there may appear to be such incompetence due to a deeper factor, which is the “critical point” at which a decision is made knowingly to risk killing innocent civilians.

Somewhere within the American military system, there is established a “critical point”, a “line”, a judgmental line, a line that becomes part of the fighting culture, and that line balances the prospect of killing the “enemy” against the prospect of killing friendly or innocent civilians. This line is internalized by the forces. If that line is drawn so as to value killing the enemy much above killing friendlies, then the U.S. forces will knowingly take an excessive number of civilian lives (in this context).

The record of civilian deaths by “accident” suggests that the line has been drawn with too low a regard for civilian deaths.

Numerous civilian deaths are directly attributable to American forces in Afghanistan, not to mention the indirect deaths linked to starting the war in the first place. The Afghan public protests alone indicate the scope of these killings. For example, “On August 23, 2008, about 250 Afghan villagers gathered in angry demonstration to protest the deaths of 76 civilians, most of them children, killed in U.S.-led airstrikes near the village of Azizabad, about 120 kilometres south of Herat city in western Afghanistan.”

The lieutenant colonel writes “When I read of the incident I was appalled that anyone would decide to target a hospital without extraordinary circumstances compelling the decision.” It may be that there were no “extraordinary circumstance” in our view because we draw the line so as to minimize the taking of innocent lives. At the same time, in the view of the special forces who are fighting, the line may be drawn amid a culture such that friendly lives are noticeably devalued.

To understand the problem is not to forgive it or reduce it. Special forces are trained to fight an enemy. Sent into battle in Afghanistan, they are going to draw lines in a different way than anti-war activists draw it.

The original sin here is the making of war in Afghanistan by the U.S. in the first place. Sending special forces to root out bin Laden and his associates was distinct from attempting regime change in Afghanistan. The latter goal and the war to achieve that goal carried with it as a consequence that American forces were going to kill innocent Afghan civilians. The larger war crime of attacking the government in Afghanistan entailed the subsequent war crimes, such as bombing the Kundoz hospital. Specific incidents could not be predicted, and some effort would be made to limit them from happening; but it could be predicted that these efforts would not be perfect and that a certain number of incidents would occur once the war was instigated.

Kunduz is regrettable and appalling, but it’s part of a larger fabric that’s even more regrettable; and that is that the U.S. launched a war against Afghanistan in 2001. And that too is part of an even larger pattern, which involves a relatively recent succession of U.S. interventions in numerous other countries: Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Somalia, and Ukraine. NATO and U.S. moves in eastern Europe and Africa add to this list.

The above originally appeared at

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