Afghan Doctor Slaughter Pulls Back Curtain

Afghan Doctor Slaughter Pulls Back CurtainAfghan Doctor Slaughter Pulls Back Curtain

On Dec. 26, 2009, a US Special Operations team flew from Kabul to Ghazi Khan Village in the Narang district of Kunar Province. They attacked three houses, where they killed two adults and eight children. Seven of the children were handcuffed before they were shot. The youngest was 11 or 12, three more were 12, and one was 15. Both the United Nations and the Afghan government conducted investigations and confirmed all the details of the attack.

US officials conducted their own inquiry, but no report was published and no US military or civilian officials were held accountable. Finally, more than five years later, a New York Times report on Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) Seal Team 6 named it as the US force involved. But JSOC operations are officially secret and, to all practical purposes, immune from accountability. As a senior US officer told the Times, “JSOC investigates JSOC; that’s part of the problem.”

Accountability for the US attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz on Saturday, killing at least 22 people, is likely to be just as elusive. The bilateral security agreement that president Hamid Karzai refused to sign, but which President Ashraf Ghani signed in September 2014, provides total immunity from Afghan law for US forces and officials.

So whoever should be held legally responsible for the massacre at the hospital will only be subject to accountability under US military and civilian legal systems, which routinely fail to prosecute anyone for similar war crimes, Nicolas Davies reports for Consortium News.

What makes this attack unique is not that US-led forces attacked a hospital or killed civilians, but that, for the first time in many years, a western NGO found itself operating behind enemy lines in territory controlled by Anti-Coalition Forces or Taliban. Doctors Without Borders (or MSF for its French initials) thus found itself subject to US rules of engagement under which Afghans have lived and died in their thousands for the past 14 years, effectively excluded from the protections formally guaranteed to civilians, the wounded and medical facilities by the Geneva Conventions.

While UN officials have condemned the attack on MSF in Kunduz, the UN itself has been complicit in the under-reporting of civilian casualties in ACF-held territory in Afghanistan. The UN has issued reports on civilian casualties based only on the small number of civilian deaths that it has fully investigated. When western officials and media have cited these numbers as estimates of total civilian deaths in Afghanistan, the UN has failed to correct that misleading and dangerous impression.

  War Is Not Pretty

As a former US Navy Seal told the New York Times, “War is not this pretty thing the United States has come to believe it to be.” But it is not really “the United States” that has come to see war as a “pretty thing.” Rather it is our leaders who have targeted the American public with propaganda or “Stratcom”–“strategic communications”–to disguise the horrific reality of war, while providing JSOC and other US forces with secrecy and legal cover to systematically violate the Geneva Conventions.

As retired Admiral James Stavridis told the Times, “If you want these forces to do things that occasionally bend the rules of international law, you certainly don’t want that out in public.”

While US forces feel free to disregard the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law, the People On War survey conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross found that ordinary people in war-torn countries like Afghanistan hold strongly to the international legal conventions that are supposed to protect them.

This ICRC report did find the United States exceptional, not in believing war to be “pretty,” but in its failure to educate its people and its soldiers about the Geneva Conventions and the protections they guarantee to civilians in wartime.

While three-quarters of people in other developed countries knew that soldiers in war “must attack only other combatants and leave civilians alone,” only 52% of Americans were aware of this basic principle of military law. Twice as many Americans as people in other countries subscribed to an erroneous and lower legal standard that military operations should only “avoid civilians as much as possible.”

The ICRC concluded that, “Across a wide range of questions, in fact, American attitudes towards attacks on civilians were much more lax.”

  Erroneous Raids

Senior US military officers have told Dana Priest of the Washington Post that more than 50% of US special forces night raids target the wrong person or house. But that didn’t stop US  President Barack Obama making them a central tactic in his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, boosting the number of night raids from 20 raids in May 2009 to 1,000 per month a year later.

There is no reason to believe that US airstrikes are more accurate or based on better intelligence than night raids by special operations forces. British military adviser Kamal Alam explained to the BBC last Friday that Russian airstrikes in Syria are likely to be more accurate than US ones because they have the critical advantage of being guided by Syrian military intelligence on the ground.

Alam noted that even the Iraqi government depends on Syrian military intelligence in its campaign against the Islamic State, and added that this is a source of embarrassment to US officials, who have no such human intelligence capabilities in Syria or Iraq.

Maybe the attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz will force more Americans to confront the ugly reality of the devastating air war the US has waged across half a dozen countries for 14 years.

Whether any institution can succeed in holding US officials legally accountable for the bombing of the MSF hospital or not, it may finally bring home the horrors and the indiscriminate nature of our country’s endless air war to millions of Americans. US propaganda will try to portray this as a tragic isolated incident. It is not. It is a war crime, and only the latest in a 14-year-long policy of systematic war crimes.