The general ultimately responsible for Saturday’s US airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital said Afghan forces attempting to retake Kunduz from the called in the deadly raid.
John Campbell, speaking at the Pentagon, said he was correcting an initial US statement that said the airstrike was meant to defend US forces under fire.
Campbell, the commander of the 9,800 US troops and residual Nato forces in Afghanistan, did not apologize on Monday for the airstrike – which Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) is – saying that he would “in the next couple of days”.
But Campbell, who offered few new details of the “tragic” strike, suggested the Taliban was ultimately responsible for a series of airstrikes that has occasioned shock and outrage, particularly after the US late last week condemned what it called over-broad bombings by its Russian adversary in and its Saudi ally in Yemen.
“Unfortunately, the Taliban decided to remain in the city and fight from within, knowingly putting civilians at significant risk of harm,” Campbell told reporters on Monday morning, saying the Taliban “have purposely chosen a fight from within a heavily urbanized area”.
Correcting what he called an erroneous earlier impression from his command, Campbell said that US special operations forces on the ground in Kunduz to “advise” Afghan forces were not under attack to prompt the raid. Instead, Campbell said, the aerial assault, conducted by a US AC-130 gunship, was requested by the Afghans.
“We have now learned that on 3 October, Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from US forces. An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck,” Campbell said.
In a statement responding to Campbell’s comments, Christopher Stokes, the general director of Doctors Without Borders, which also uses its French acronym MSF, rejected Campbell’s statement as an attempt to shift blame for the US airstrike to the Afghan government and said the US remained responsible for targets it hit.
“Today the US government has admitted that it was their airstrike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff,” he said. “Their description of the attack keeps changing – from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the government.
“The reality is the US dropped those bombs. The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition.”
He said there could be no justification for “this horrible attack” and said the discrepancies in the US and Afghan accounts meant a “full transparent independent investigation” was needed.
Since the attack, Doctors Without Borders has aggressively challenged the US military and Afghan government’s account of the strike, which killed at least 12 of their staff and 10 patients – among them three children.
On Saturday and Sunday, the US military conceded that it conducted an airstrike “in the vicinity of a Doctors Without Borders medical facility” in Kunduz, a city the US was assisting their Afghan military proteges in recapturing from the Taliban.
Doctors Without Borders immediately said it had provided precise coordinates of the hospital to all parties to the conflict, raising questions about the US’s targeting choices. The group said the main hospital building was “repeatedly hit very precisely during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched”, implying that the US strikes were aimed at a civilian medical facility.
Campbell did not explain what happened to the GPS coordinates, and said that the answer would have to await the results of what has now become three separate inquiries, conducted by the US, Afghanistan and . Nor did he say what happened after MSF attempted to alert US and Afghan authorities to the bombing of its hospital.
On Sunday, an Afghan interior ministry spokesman, Sediq Sediqi, said that “”. Doctors Without Borders called the account both false and an “admission of a war crime”, as it suggested that the hospital was a deliberate target of what it described as several rounds of airstrikes over the course of an hour, spaced approximately 15 minutes apart.
“This utterly contradicts the initial attempts of the US government to minimize the attack as ‘collateral damage’. There can be no justification for this abhorrent attack on our hospital that resulted in the deaths of MSF staff as they worked, and patients as they lay in their beds,” Stokes said on Sunday.
Survivors of the bombings described a terrible scene of destruction.
Lajos Zoltan Jecs, a nurse who made it out of the hospital during the strike, said that when he looked inside one of the flame-engulfed buildings, he saw six intensive care patients “burning in their beds”.
MSF’s director for northern Afghanistan, Heman Nagarathnam, said he heard planes after the first round of bombing. “There was a pause, and then more bombs hit. This happened again and again. When I made it out from the office, the main hospital building was engulfed in flames,” Nagarathnam said in a statement.
While Campbell did not apologize, the general offered his “deepest condolences” and praised the “tremendous work” performed by Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan.
“If errors were committed, we’ll acknowledge them. We’ll hold those responsible accountable and we’ll take steps to make sure mistakes are not repeated,” Campbell said during the 10-minute press conference on Monday morning. The general cautioned that the weeklong fight to retake Kunduz from the Taliban continues, as does US support for the Afghan offensive.
“We will take all necessary steps to avoid future civilian casualties,” said Campbell, who is slated to testify tomorrow to the Senate about the 14-year-old Afghanistan war, which Barack Obama has declared all but over.