As the Obama administration decides whether or not to withdraw its remaining 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, ominous signs are hovering over the country because of the Taliban’s recent offensive in Kunduz and the reckless American airstrikes on 3 October – killing 12 innocent medical workers and 20 patients and injuring 37 others – for which the White House has finally apologised and which the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has quite rightly called a “war crime”. The capital of an Afghan province bearing the same name, the ethnically diverse city of Kunduz is a strategic transport hub for northern Afghanistan. In an extraordinary show of strength after 14 years of insurgency and insurrection, in late September a resurgent Taliban unexpectedly overran Afghanistan’s fifth largest city. By the hundreds, battle-hardended Taliban fighters stormed the city in the early hours of the morning of 28 September 2015 and quickly seized key buildings and advanced on the airport.
They took control of most areas and freed hundreds of prisoners from the local jail. Ensuing attempts to retake the city resulted in humanitarian disaster. Notably, in 2009 a US airstrike in the area killed over 90 civilians but it appears no lessons were learned from that tragedy. President Obama ultimately called MSF’s international president Joanne Liu to tender his apology for the deadly attack on the field hospital in Kunduz but it was too little too late and involved at least four shifts, in as many days, in the US narrative. From initially blaming their Afghan colleagues on the ground for calling in the airstrike and denying knowledge, the US finally accepted that its own forces were responsible for insanely requesting the deadly attacks. MSF has said that the US airstrike is a clear violation of the Geneva conventions and the charity also argues that such no notice military actions blatantly breach the Pentagon’s express 2015 instructions on the rules of war. The fall of Kunduz (population 305,000) is seen as a turning point in the war-torn country’s relentless conflict. Although Afghan security forces are not strained by sectarianism like their Iraqi counterparts, it can be strongly argued that the departure of western forces from Afghanistan may expose it to the type of situation which gripped Iraq with the exit of the Americans and the rise of ISIS.
The incident coincided with “precision” Russian strikes against ISIS in Syria which appear to be carried out more competently than American actions in Kunduz and very serous doubts therefore arise about the efficiencies attributable to western forces in Afghanistan. (Albeit, perhaps to cover up its own screw up in Kunduz, the west claims that multiple missiles fired into Syria by the Russian navy from the Caspian Sea crashed in Iran.) According to MSF, 33 people are still missing in the aftermath of the American attack on the hospital and Dr Liu is adamant that she will not allow the incident to become “a blank cheque to any countries at war.” MSF said that the attack continued for 30 minutes even after NATO commanders had been informed of the civilian nature of the hospital and an appalled Joanne Liu said: “This attack cannot be brushed aside as a mere mistake or inevitable consequence of war.” The incident is all the more tragic because some years ago on 4 September 2009, responding to a call made by German forces, an American F-15E fighter jet struck two fuel tankers captured by the Taliban and killed over 90 civilians in the process. Notably, in light of recent Taliban advances, the US commander in Afghanistan General John Campbell said in a Senate hearing that the Pentagon needed to rethink pulling its forces out by the end of 2016. “We must provide options different than the plan we are going with,” he said. The Pentagon accepts that it will need to retain a larger force in the country than previous estimated.
With 13,200 NATO troops in Afghanistan, recent statistics on the casualties of the conflict are quite striking. The Taliban counter-offensive has claimed the lives of 5,000 Afghan government soldiers this year alone. Each year there are hundreds of targeted killings and, over the last couple of years, on average approximately 3,000 Afghan civilians are being killed annually by the Taliban. It is feared that NATO’s exit and the end of foreign oversight of the Afghan national army will result in a domino effect and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is of the view that:
The fall of Kunduz is a symbol no one can ignore. Kunduz has been a serious problem for months, and historically control over it has been a litmus test over who has the power. Fighting over Kunduz has been something of an Afghan tradition, not just with the Taliban and Kabul but right back to the Russians when they were there.
The fall of Kunduz shocked most analysts and despite the government’s campaign to regain control of the key city, there are serious questions over Afghanistan’s survival without NATO assistance because the country does not even have an air force to fulfil its defence goals. It is awash with narcotics and reportedly jihadis recruiting for ISIS and other Islamic fundamentalists pay twice the going rate for fighters in comparison to the government. Mullah Omer’s death was not all that fatal to the Taliban and Kimberly Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War explains that the threat posed by them is mutating and that the scene is set for “a regional, if not a global, jihad in Afghanistan.” If anything, Mullah Omer’s departure has intensified the infighting among the major stakeholders in the Taliban and they are enhancing their violent campaigns against government forces. Kagan rightly draws on the analogy from the Iraqi context where we witnessed the transformation of ISIS from just an obscure terrorist organisation with a stronghold in Mosul into a vast military force capturing territory from a variety of actors. From this perspective, Afghanistan is a second Iraq in the making.
Once a tyrannical dictatorship – or a “Republic of Fear” under Saddam Hussein – Iraq has been transformed into a fully-fledged kleptocracy: it is a sectarian state, the 2003 US led invasion and the provisional authority it created alienated Sunnis formerly aligned with the defunct Baathist regime and reversed Shia fortunes which came to be in the ascendant. But now, perhaps even more dangerously, Afghanistan has fallen into the same trap and it appears that the war-torn country will yet again be in the shadow of the jihadi banner of the Taliban.
American failures lie at the heart of both catastrophes and in the case of Iraq, the hardships of transforming the system – by breaking existing structures of patronage created by Saddam’s overthrown dictatorship – are well recorded by Emma Sky in her recent book The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. Sky, who served as the representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk in 2003 and later as political advisor to US General Raymond Odierno from 2007-2010, argues that “nothing that happened in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was preordained” but that things fell apart because “Maliki has replaced competent officers with people loyal to himself. Corruption was rife.”
Sectarianism came to rule the roost with the result that tolerance frittered away and Yezidis and Christains fled. “Iraq’s minorities no longer felt wanted,” explained Sky – a British woman who had been admitted to the tribe of the Americans and won many plaudits in her audiences with western leaders such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama.
However, it has been reported that sidelined Sunnis are in “secret Iraq talks” with militiamen and Baathists and the government is lobbying by to join forces with Baghdad.
Vis-à-vis the deadly American airstrikes in Kunduz, the Obama administration’s apology for the incident was met with demands for an independent inquiry with no links to the US military or NATO which are considered incompetent to self-investigate and self-enforce the rules of proper military conduct. Whether or not notice was provided before the attack will be critical to determining whether the attacks were in violation of international law and the Pentagon’s own explicit 2015 instructions on the rules of war.
Aggrieved by the tragedy, MSF’s international president Joanne Liu said that:
This was not just an attack on our hospital – it was an attack on the Geneva conventions. This cannot be tolerated.
As noted at the outset above, in the aftermath of the lethal strikes the Americans changed their story on no less than four occasions before president Obama tendered a telephonic apology to MSF. On 3 October 2015, US forces emphasised that they conducted an airstrike against individuals threatening them and that the strike “may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.” Then, admitting that the strike was close to a MSF facility, on 4 October the story changed to asserting that the strike was conducted against belligerents “firing upon US service members advising and assisting Afghan security forces in the city of Kunduz.” Subsequently on 5 October the US said that Afghan forces taking fire called in the air raid which was necessary to eliminate the threat posed by the Taliban but some civilians were also hit. Then on 6 October the narrative was varied yet again and it was said that despite the request for air cover by Afghan forces a “vigorous” US procedure was applied and it had been cleared by a special operations unit in the vicinity “that was talking to the aircraft that delivered those fires.”
Unsurprisingly, shortly before General John Campbell – the commander of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan – conceded that US personnel called in the airstrikes, MSF was absolutely clear that the US and Afghanistan had made an “admission of a war crime.”
Such terrible misunderstandings can only bolster the Taliban and the drawdown of NATO forces is bound to lead Afghanistan into further disarray and disaster. Will millions of refugees flee again to Pakistan and Iran? We can only hope that there are no further tragedies for the Afghans. But only time will tell what the future holds.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame explained:
Any serious violation of the law of armed conflict, such as attacking a hospital that is immune from intentional attack, is a war crime. Hospitals are immune from attack during an armed conflict unless being used by one party to harm the other and then only after a warning that it will be attacked.
Speaking in Geneva, because of the inconsistencies in US-Afghan narratives, Liu demanded a non-prosecutorial inquiry by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) – a body never to be utilised under the Geneva conventions prior to this incident. Eager to protect the special status accorded to hospitals in war, Liu said:
If we let this go, we are giving a blank cheque to any countries at war.
MSF says that victims, indeed the patients present in the hospital, of the attack by the American AC-130 Spectre gunship were burned to death in their beds. MSF has sent correspondence to the 76 countries which are signatories to the additional protocols of the Geneva conventions, to which the US is not a party, and only one of them is required to respond to trigger an inquiry in the IHFFC (which is not within the UN umbrella, see here). Afghan forces contend that they faced fire from within the MSF compound but these claims are vehemently denied by the charity which quite rightly wants such points to be proved to the legal standard.
In fact, making proportionality the crux of the matter, the Pentagon’s manual states in unambiguous terms that:
Such use of force in self-defence against medical units or facilities must be proportionate. For example, a single enemy rifleman firing from a hospital window would warrant a response against the rifleman only, rather than the destruction of the hospital.