Deadly bombing at hospital clouds Afghanistan decisions

Deadly bombing at hospital clouds Afghanistan decisions

A Senate panel is expected on Tuesday to grill the commander of the military coalition in Afghanistan following the U.S. bombing of a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders over the weekend.

The Senate Armed Services Committee had scheduled the hearing with Gen. John Campbell weeks ago, but lawmakers are likely to seize the opportunity to press the commander on the bombing, which the humanitarian organization is calling a “war crime.”

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The bombing in the city of Kunduz killed 12 Doctors Without Borders staff members and 10 patients, including three children, while wounding 37 others, according to the group.

Campbell previewed his response Monday at a Pentagon briefing, calling the incident “very serious and tragic” and offering his condolences. He also sought to shift blame to the Taliban, who last week seized Kunduz.

“Unfortunately, the Taliban have decided to remain in the city and fight from within knowingly, putting civilians at significant risk or harm,” he said.

“If errors were committed we’ll acknowledge them. We’ll hold those responsible accountable and we will take steps to ensure mistakes are not repeated,” Campbell added, noting that three separate investigations are underway.

The White House on Monday said it did not believe the bombing was a “war crime” and defended its efforts to limit civilian casualties.

“I wouldn’t use the label like that because this is something that continues to be under investigation,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

Doctors Without Borders blasted those responses, accusing the U.S. of shifting explanations, and called for an independent investigation.

“Their description of the attack keeps changing — from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government,” said the group’s general director, -Christopher Stokes, on Monday.

The incident is also raising questions about the readiness of Afghan forces as the U.S. prepares to withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2016. The U.S. on Monday said Afghan forces called in the deadly strikes on the hospital.

The Taliban’s takeover of Kunduz also underscores those concerns. Campbell said Saturday’s strike was in response to a call for help from Afghan forces.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSanders says idea he can't work with Republicans is 'total nonsense' GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman Overnight Defense: GOP lawmaker takes unannounced trip to Syria | Taliban leader pens New York Times op-ed on peace talks | Cheney blasts paper for publishing op-ed MORE (R-Ariz.), the Armed Services Committee chairman, has repeatedly argued that it is a mistake for the U.S. to pull out all troops. He and other critics of the administration’s strategy argue that Afghanistan could fall back into chaos without the U.S. presence.

McCain on Sunday partially blamed the bombardment of the hospital on the downsized U.S. force.

“If we had an air control, it most likely would not have happened, and this is also a result of our withdrawal,” he said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

President Obama has sought to end the war in Afghanistan before leaving office, but the White House also fears the prospect of an Iraq-like scenario after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria now controls vast sections of Iraq.

The Washington Post reported Monday that Obama is seriously weighing a plan developed by retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, to keep up to 5,000 U.S. troops in the country.

Campbell has also reportedly drafted five drawdown options, including reducing the 9,800 troops in Afghanistan to 8,000, cutting the force in half, or sticking with the president’s plan.

Earnest would not elaborate on Obama’s process.

“At this point, I don’t have a timeline for consideration,” he said, adding that the president must “factor in both what our experience has been in recent years and also how best to account for the United States national security interests.”

David Sedney, who served as Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said he would not recommend sticking to any numbers or an arbitrary timeline for withdrawal.

“Neither I nor anyone else or anyone in the administration knows what the situation will be like at the end of 2016. I think it would be a mistake to pull out based upon an artificial schedule,” said Sedney, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a phone interview from Kabul with The Hill. 

“We should be flexible and we should be adaptive and our focus should be on ensuring the Afghans have the best chance they can to succeed,” he added. 

Obama has already altered his plan once by keeping the number of U.S. troops at 9,800 throughout the year, instead of cutting it in half.

The administration has argued that Iraq deteriorated due to the sectarian policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and that keeping U.S. troops there would not have mattered. Critics say the presence of U.S. troops would have helped keep pressure on Maliki and improved the quality of Iraq’s military, which the U.S. spent millions of dollars training.