The Pentagon has launched a formal investigation into an accidental strike on a Doctors Without Borders medical facility in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz.
A spokesman for the international charity said that twelve staff members and seven patients–including three children–were killed in a “sustained” bombing attack on the complex that began early Saturday morning and reportedly continued for more than 20 minutes. Doctors Without Borders claims that the location of their facility had been provided to both sides in the Afghan conflict as recently as Tuesday of last week, to prevent a possible attack.
This much we know: Afghan Army troops, supported by U.S. special forces and airpower, have been attempting to dislodge terrorists from Kunduz, which was captured by Taliban forces last week. Areas around the hospital were still in Taliban control late Friday night (and engaging coalition forces), prompting a call for air support. An AC-130 gunship was dispatched to the scene and may have been the aircraft that mistakenly struck the medical complex on Saturday morning. Taliban fighters were being treated at the hospital at the time of the attack; Doctors Without Borders provides treatment to personnel from both sides, along with civilians caught in the cross-fire.
But here’s what we don’t know, and answers these questions will go a long way in determining what happened. First, no one has confirmed that the Doctors Without Borders facility was displaying the Red Cross, Red Crescent or other symbol used by protected facilities. Hospitals in war zones typically show one of those symbols to prevent inadvertent attacks.
However, those symbols are sometimes deliberately misused to protect ammo dumps, command and control sites and other military facilities. The Palestinian Authority has a long history of hiding military assets inside medical buildings and cultural landmarks that are normally protected from attack. Such violations of the laws of armed conflict further complicate the targeting process.
Enemies like the Taliban (and others) also have a history of operating inside or adjacent to protected facilities, hoping to create collateral damage incidents. At this point, it’s unclear if the Taliban was firing on Afghan troops and U.S. special forces from inside the compound, but it is certainly a possibility.
The AC-130 carriers a variety of sensors to help it identify and strike ground targets, including low-light TV and IR. It’s a safe bet the investigation team will take an early look at what those sensors captured, before and during the engagement. And if the data confirms the Taliban caused the attack on the hospital, the military should quickly release the video or FLIR footage and show how enemy actions led to the tragedy.
Unfortunately, investigations of this type take time–usually months–to complete. By that time, the incident will have been largely forgotten by the global media, which will use the ensuring weeks to set the coverage template.