U.S. servicemen responsible for an attack on a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Afghanistan are not guilty of war crimes because they did not mean to kill more than 40 patients and staff, or so says the Pentagon, an argument that does not sit well with physicians, survivors and victims’ families. Many are irate by the so-called disciplinary measures meted out to the 16 involved, who face suspensions, counseling, retraining and “letters of reprimand”, yet none of whom will face a court martial or criminal charges.
On Friday, US CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel told reporters that on October 3, 2015, an AC-130 aircraft mistook an MSF medical clinic for a Taliban-controlled facility during airstrikes due to human error and equipment failure, despite the hospital’s inclusion on a “no-strike” list.
“The investigation concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the rules of engagement in the law of armed conflict. However, the investigation did not conclude that these failures amounted to a war crime,” Votel claimed, adding that the label “war crimes” is typically reserved for intentional acts, as in the intentional targeting of civilians or protected locations.
MSF responded swiftly to the announcement in a statement, denouncing the “administrative” punishments as “out of proportion to the destruction of a protected medical facility, the deaths of 42 people, the wounding of dozens of others, and the total loss of vital medical services to hundreds of thousands of people.”
MSF also issued a list of questions about the Pentagon investigation, including how the travesty does not justify a single court martial and how these weak disciplinary measures will deter future violations of the laws of war.
“The threshold that must be crossed for this deadly incident to amount to a grave breach of international humanitarian law is not whether it was intentional or not,” MSF President Meinie Nicolai argued.
Moreover, New York Times reporter Joe Goldstein found a blatant falsity in the Pentagon report, wherein the U.S. claims the MSF facility lacked an internationally-recognized symbol readily visible to the aircrew at night identifying itself as a medical facility. However, Goldstein tweeted, the building did have such a symbol that was brightly lit on the hospital roof – a large white and red flag bearing the French group’s name: “Médecins Sans Frontières.”
The U.S. government did dispense condolence payments: $3,000 for the wounded and $6,000 for those killed as a “gesture of sympathy,” which The New York Times editorial board characterized as an “utterly inadequate recompense for the lives and livelihoods lost in one of the most monumental mistakes of the recent wars.” Further, MSF decried the fact that the victims would not be able to pursue justice or compensation on their own.
Votel explained – somehow with a straight face – that the supposed punishments will have “severe repercussions” for those involved because they could block promotions or lead to dismissals, hence making potential war crimes tantamount to career-limiting moves.
One Afghan survivor told Voice of America that the penalties were insulting. “Removing them from their positions is not enough, they should be executed. They should also financially support the children of those who were killed,” a man who went by the name of Hamdullah said.
41-year old Abdul Samad of Kunduz city, whose nephew was killed in the bombing, called the attack an inhumane violation of national and international laws.
“I wish they were in our country then we could get them convicted according to our own laws,” Samad said in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes. “[T]hey are 100 percent murders and they should be treated as murders in their own country.”
U.S. citizens face stiffer penalties for reckless driving while military personnel get a slap on the wrist for, according to the Times, “one of the most egregious war zone blunders in recent history.”
The Pentagon scrambled to do more damage control on Friday, issuing an order to improve processes in Afghanistan, including revisions to U.S. targeting procedures.
Something tells me, this too, will hardly put the minds of doctors, aid workers and Afghans at ease. The farce of an investigation, the exculpation of heinous acts and overall lack of true justice highlights how the U.S. military can kill with impunity when operating in foreign countries. God forbid if U.S. citizens were involved. Most Americans will remain silent, chalk this incident up to the fog of war in a faraway land and continue “supporting our troops” without question.
Meanwhile, Afghans will live under perpetual fear, never feeling safe, especially when they hear a plane overhead – be it at home or the marketplace or a wedding hall – anywhere. Even when in those locations that can be found on the once sacred “no-strike” list.