Airstrike Tragedy Holds Lesson for U.S., General Says

10/6/2015 1:06:00 PM, Britain Eakin

     WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S.'s top military commander in Afghanistan remained tight-lipped on Tuesday while testifying before a congressional committee about the recent U.S. airstrikes that destroyed a hospital in Afghanistan, killing 22 people.
     Though Gen. John Campbell assured lawmakers that forthcoming investigations of the Oct. 3 incident would provide a full accounting of what happened, the commander had little insight to offer now about the airstrikes that he said "mistakenly" hit a hospital in Kunduz run Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian group also known by its French name Medecins Sans Frontieres.
     "We would never intentionally target a protected, medical facility," Campbell testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
     The testimony came one day after Campbell backtracked on earlier reports from the Pentagon that U.S. troops launched the airstrikes on Saturday after coming under fire.
     At a press conference on Monday, Campbell said that the U.S. had actually launched the airstrikes in response to a request from Afghan troops for U.S. air support.
     Kunduz became a flashpoint late last month after the Taliban overtook the city in northern Afghanistan. Though largely relegated to the sidelines since official U.S. combat operations concluded last year, U.S. forces engaged in the fight to help shore up the Afghan National Security Forces.
     Campbell said U.S. and Afghan forces have been able to push back the Taliban over the last few days.
     Noting that the attack on Kunduz surprised the Afghans, Campbell spoke to some of the security challenges that still plague the country.
     Though it has slowed down the withdrawal, the Obama administration wants U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016, leaving only an embassy-based U.S. presence in Kabul.
     Campbell warned that following this trajectory will limit the ability of the U.S. to help the Afghan military, which will continue to need support beyond the 2016 withdrawal deadline.
     "The Afghan forces have repeatedly shown that without key enablers and competent operational commanders, they cannot handle the fight alone at this stage of their development," Campbell testified, adding that the shortfalls of their military capabilities will persist beyond this year.
     Campbell said he does not believe that Taliban forces can overtake the government, but said the threat they pose will stretch the Afghan security forces. Added to this, the Islamic State has a growing presence in the country as the security situation has worsened in recent months.
     Campbell described the IS presence there as nascent about eight months ago, but said the group is now "operationally emergent."
     To deal with these challenges, Campbell suggested that there will be a continued need for U.S. troops on the ground to train Afghan forces beyond 2016.
     "I believe we still have to do train, advise and assist at certain levels, for aviation, for logistics, for intelligence, for special operating forces," Campbell said. "I believe that we have to have a counter-terrorism capability, and you need a certain amount of forces to be able to do that."
     Campbell did express cautious optimism, however, about the progress of the Afghan forces, saying the government led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani represents the "best chance" to help stabilize the country.
     Promising a transparent investigation of this week's airstrikes in Kunduz, the general praised the abilities of the U.S., NATO and Afghan teams studying the incident.
     Doctors Without Borders, which disputes whether the airstrikes were accidental, has called the attack a war crime. The organization is no longer working in Kunduz since the attack.
     "We reiterate that the main hospital building, where medical personnel were caring for patients, was repeatedly and very precisely hit during each aerial raid, while the rest of the compound was left mostly untouched," the group said in a statement.
     The organization has called for an independent investigation of the airstrikes, which killed 10 of its staff members and 12 patients, including three children.
     Campbell downplayed the need for an independent investigation of the incident during questioning.
     Outside the hearing, Ella Watson-Stryker, a field worker with Doctors Without Borders, noted that no one grilled Campbell about "why the bombing of our hospital continued for 30 minutes after they were informed that they were bombing a civilian hospital."
     "I think that's an important question and I think we need an answer to that," Watson-Stryker said in an interview.
     She also expressed skepticism that the U.S. investigation will answer that question.
     Doctors Without Borders says both the U.S. and Afghan militaries had the hospital's GPS coordinates, and that the organization contacted military officials in Washington and Kabul while the hospital was under attack.
     None of the senators asked Campbell about these claims.
     Throughout the hearing, senators referred to the attack on the hospital as a tragedy.
     The language struck Athena Viscusi, a social worker present at the hearing who has done missions with Doctors Without Borders.
     "It is a tragedy but it's more than an accident," Viscusi said in an interview. "Somebody made the decision to do this and needs to be held accountable."
     Humanitarian workers may work in dangerous situations, "but we never expect to be the victims of our own government," Viscusi said.