Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Did US Attack a Hospital? Kunduz's Troubling Questions

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Did US Attack a Hospital? Kunduz's Troubling Questions

Article excerpt

On one hand, the United States is being accused of being too scared of civilian casualties to take the fight to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

On the other, the US is being accused of razing a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 19 - including three children - and even continuing the attack for 30 minutes after being told what the building was.

Though the picture from Afghanistan is incomplete and shifting, both statements appear to be true. They point to how, in the ambiguous realm of counterinsurgency in unfamiliar foreign lands, the line between waging war with a modicum of morality and committing what could be a war crime is remarkably thin.

At least three investigations into the Kunduz attack have been promised, and the aid group that ran the hospital, Doctors Without Borders, has been relentless in demanding answers. But more broadly, the episode raises new and pressing questions about how an airstrike could go so horribly wrong at a time when the stated goal of the Obama administration is zero civilian casualties.

Recent examples show how hard that goal is to attain for any country trying to wage an effective air campaign.

In June, a US airstrike destroyed an Iraqi factory building bombs for the Islamic State - and in the process "flattened an entire neighborhood," killing 70, including civilians, Reuters reported. In January, a Canadian jet killed between six and 27 civilians in Iraq - but Canadian authorities "felt no obligation under the Geneva Conventions to probe what happened," the Toronto Globe and Mail reported. Meanwhile, Saudi airstrikes killed at least 364 civilians in Yemen during the first three weeks of an air campaign against rebel militias earlier this year, according to United Nations statistics.

The US has won praise from advocacy groups for its attempts to limit civilian casualties in airstrikes against the Islamic State. "The US has indeed put in place rigorous policies and procedures to minimize civilian harm," Federico Borello, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, told The New York Times.

Yet in the fight against the Islamic State and the Taliban, the pressure for results is keen. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been lost, and yet the Taliban still took Kunduz from Afghan forces last week, and the Islamic State only gains more recruits.

Noting that as much as three-quarters of American warplanes sent on sorties against the Islamic State return without having dropped a bomb, GOP Sen. John McCain told The Hill that such an excess of caution "is insane," adding that "the air campaign is totally ineffectual."

Former Pentagon official Michele Flournoy, once tipped to be Defense secretary, wrote in The Washington Post that the air campaign in Iraq and Syria should be intensified, with "forward air controllers to call in close air support. …

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