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We Had to Destroy the Hospital to Save the Town

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‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’, a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town [Bến Tre] regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.

–Reporter Peter Arnett, in Vietnam, February 7, 1968, verified by US Captain Michael D Miller, who was present.

The battle for Kobane was a victory in the US war against the Islamic State, but the town was destroyed in the process.

A heap of dust is all that remains of the house where Alan Kurdi was born and raised . . . The image of the toddler’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach turned him into an instant symbol of the suffering of Syrians . . .  His flattened home, destroyed in an American airstrike . . .  is just one among hundreds of thousands that have been obliterated in Syria during the four-year-old war.

Washington Post, November 13, 2015.

“My thoughts and prayers are with those affected”

This is the sickening phrase mouthed automatically and hypocritically by Western generals and political leaders trying to defend or explain away a particularly vile atrocity committed by their nation’s military.

The official report on the reasons for destruction of the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on October 3, 2015 by a US AC-130 gunship was released on November 25, immediately before the US Thanksgiving festivities. The deaths of over twenty medical staff and patients received only minor mention in the mainstream US and other western media, which was exactly what was intended. But the facts can’t be disguised.

From the moment of the first burst of shattering fire on the hospital the story of the merciless hour-long blitz has been twisted and manipulated by US officialdom, as shown by the first comforting media release that

US forces conducted an airstrike in Kunduz city at 2:15 am (local), October 3, against insurgents who were directly firing upon US service members advising and assisting Afghan Security Forces in the city of Kunduz. The strike was conducted in the vicinity of a Doctors Without Borders medical facility.

Pentagon Press Office, BBC October 4.

Next day the supreme military commander in Afghanistan, US General Campbell, said “Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from US forces. An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat, and several civilians were accidentally struck.”

This farrago of deceit didn’t last long, because hard evidence to the contrary was so compelling, but later versions of the slaughter story were intended to be equally misleading.

As reported internationally : “Shifting the US account of the Saturday morning airstrike for the fourth time in as many days, General Campbell reiterated that Afghan forces had requested US air cover after being engaged in a ‘tenacious fight’ to retake the northern city of Kunduz from the Taliban. But, modifying the account he gave at a press conference on Monday, Campbell said those Afghan forces had not directly communicated with the US pilots of an AC-130 gunship overhead.”  (Of course they hadn’t.  No Afghan could ever give orders to a US gunship.)

On October 4 the cerebral Defence Secretary Ashton Carter “confirmed that some US troops were in the vicinity of the hospital and they reported coming under attack. He also confirmed that US fighter aircraft were nearby and opened fire, but said US military officials could not say for certain that that led to the destruction of the hospital,” which was owned and operated by Médecins sans Frontières or MSF— Doctors Without Borders in English.  We’ll use MSF.

This was mendacious rubbish, too, but then Carter, one of the latter day Best-and-Brightest,  spouted the usual nauseating mantra about offering “thoughts and prayers for the innocent lives lost” which might just possibly be believable had it not been uttered by a person who didn’t believe one word of what he said because, as recounted by one victim, he is a rude arrogant bully.

Excruciatingly, the mighty General Campbell said exactly the same thing — “my thoughts and prayers are with those affected” — the same day.

Not to be outdone, within a few hours of the Carter-Campbell prayers the heart-bleeding President Obama leapt on the condolence wagon and declared that “Michelle and I offer our thoughts and prayers to all of the civilians affected by this incident, their families, and loved ones.”  Then Washington seemed to run out of senior figures (and spouses) who could voice hypocritically sorrowful platitudes about their gunship having slaughtered 13 doctors and nurses and 10 patients (only three children, this time).

The official whitewash report blamed junior officers for mistakes, as is usually the case, but it contained some statements that were so bizarre and off-the-planet that in other circumstances they would be belly-laugh comical.

General Campbell stated that “During the flight, the electronic systems onboard the aircraft malfunctioned, preventing the operation of an essential command and control capability and eliminating the ability of aircraft to transmit video, send and receive e-mail or send and receive electronic messages.”

This alleged breakdown could not possibly have anything to do with the fact that, as recorded by MSF, “the main hospital building, where medical personnel were caring for patients, was repeatedly and very precisely hit during each aerial raid.”  In any event, breakdown of an “essential command and control capability” would require immediate cessation of an air attack in case one’s own or allied troops might be placed at risk. It’s a long time since I served in the military, but I doubt that things have changed that much.

Then Campbell alleged that the aircraft’s crew believed they were targeted by a missile, forcing the aircraft to move farther away which, “degraded the accuracy of certain targeting systems which later contributed to the misidentification of the trauma centre.” His declaration was intended to confuse the public about what happened.  There could not possibly be “misidentification” of the hospital because, as made clear by MSF they

“had provided the GPS coordinates of the trauma hospital to the US Department of Defence, Afghan Ministry of Interior and Defence and US Army in Kabul as recently as Tuesday, 29 September.”

The official US report states that the airstrikes began at 2:08 a.m., which is accurate. Then the lies begin again, with General Campbell explaining that “at 2:20 a.m., a special operations forces officer at Bagram received a call from Doctors Without Borders saying their facility in Kunduz was under attack. It took . . .  until 2:37 a.m. to realize the fatal mistake. At that time, the AC-130 had already ceased firing. The strike lasted for approximately 29 minutes.”

Campbell’s statement is a downright lie.  For one thing, no single “strike” lasts 29 minutes, because the aircraft circles menacingly round and round and round and conducts many strikes, each lasting for the period it takes an AC-130 to have in its sights a hospital 1000 metres wide for enough time to rake its main buildings with fire to kill its doctors. There were dozens of strikes.

MSF states that “From around 2:00-2:08 am until 3:00-3:15 am on Saturday, 3 October, MSF’s trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan came under precise and repeated airstrikes. The main hospital building, which housed the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, laboratory, x-ray, outpatient department, mental health and physiotherapy ward, was hit with precision, repeatedly, during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched.”  The transcripts and timings of pilot/fire control officer transmissions to and from ground control were not included in the official report.  They are always recorded:  that is Standard Operating Procedure. So why not release them?

MSF president Joanne Liu said they “cannot rely on internal military investigations by US, NATO and Afghan forces” which is correct.  She called on the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission IHFFC to investigate because it is “the only permanent body set up specifically to investigate violations of international humanitarian law.”

There is one problem, here.  The signatories to the IHFFC do not include the United States (or Afghanistan). It’s one of the 37 major international, mainly humanitarian, agreements that the US refuses to have anything to do with (including the Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, for example). And if the US does not agree to an independent inquiry, then none will be held.

It’s a pity the hospital’s operating theatre and intensive care unit were reduced to rubble, with 13 doctors and nurses and 10 patients killed.  But Kunduz was eventually retaken from the Taliban, which was what was wanted — and, after all there were heaps of “thoughts and prayers” for the dead and wounded from lots of important people.

They had to destroy the hospital to save the town.

More articles by:

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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