Did the US know that MSF facility in Kunduz was a hospital?

Aftermath of the October 3 US bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan (BBC/AP)

When US aircraft bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on October 3, it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong, but it wasn’t clear what that was. Did the US deliberately attack a medical facility? Was there some kind of inexcusable error in the heat of battle that led to that target being struck? Did US forces have reason to believe that Taliban fighters were inside the hospital and were staging attacks from it against American and Afghan forces (this wouldn’t have excused the strikes)? Did Afghan soldiers call in the strike without telling the Americans what it was they would be striking?

The AP is now reporting that the US had been gathering intel on the hospital for “days before it was destroyed,” and somehow believed that it was a Taliban facility “being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity”:

The special operations analysts had assembled a dossier that included maps with the hospital circled, along with indications that intelligence agencies were tracking the location of the Pakistani operative and activity reports based on overhead surveillance, according to a former intelligence official who is familiar with some of the documents describing the site. The intelligence suggested the hospital was being used as a Taliban command and control center and may have housed heavy weapons.

After the attack — which came amidst a battle to retake the northern Afghan city of Kunduz from the Taliban — some U.S. analysts assessed that the strike had been justified, the former officer says. They concluded that the Pakistani, believed to have been working for his country’s Inter-Service Intelligence directorate, had been killed.

No evidence has surfaced publicly suggesting a Pakistani died in the attack, and Doctors without Borders, the international organization that ran the hospital, says none of its staff was Pakistani. The former intelligence official was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Even if this facility was being used by some shady “Pakistani operative” to run Taliban operations, if the military knew that facility was a hospital it likely still committed a war crime by striking it. And it must have known it was a hospital if it had been surveilling the place. Well, at least part of the military must have known; it’s not clear whether the pilots of the AC-130 that struck the building were made aware of what it was they were firing upon, which itself raises some uncomfortable questions about what was going on that day.

Hospitals are protected under US and international laws of war, and even when they lose that protection, which they do if enemy units are using the facility to stage attacks, the rules still say you have to warn the people inside the facility, and give them an appropriate amount of time to respond to the warning, before striking it. Some of this is mitigated if you don’t know you’re firing on a hospital, but, again, if US forces were collecting intel on the place, how could they have not known that it was (at least in part) a medical facility? Add that to the fact that the MSF personnel inside reportedly contacted US forces mid-attack to tell them that they were striking a hospital and, well, the US military really has a lot of explaining it needs to do here.

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