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Overnight Defense: Senate to grill top commander after hospital bombing

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

The Senate Armed Services Committee had scheduled a hearing with Gen. John Campbell weeks in advance, but it is likely to seize the opportunity to press the commander on the bombing, which the charity is calling a "war crime."

The airstrike early Saturday morning killed 22 civilians – 10 patients and 12 staff members – and wounded another 37.

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On Monday, Campbell said the strike was called in by Afghan security forces as they were under fire from the Taliban.

Campbell was correcting initial reports that it was U.S. Special Operations Forces that were under fire, he said.

While it was a U.S. airstrike, Campbell appeared to lay blame for the casualties on the Taliban.

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

Kunduz, Afghanistan has been the scene of fierce fighting in recent days after falling to the Taliban last week. Afghan forces reportedly have retaken parts of the city.

In a written statement Monday, Christopher Stokes, general director at Doctors Without Borders, said Campbell's remarks passed off responsibility for the airstrike.

"The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff," he said using the group's French name, Médecins Sans Frontières.

"The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical."

The White House on Monday called the bombing a "profound tragedy."

Asked if the incident was a "war crime," White House press secretary Earnest said, "I wouldn't use a label like that because that is under investigation."

Three investigations are underway: one by the Pentagon, one by NATO and one by Afghan and U.S. military forces.

 

NATO WARNS RUSSIA: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) called on Russia to stop violating Turkish airspace and immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians.

Russian fighter jets violated Turkey's airspace Saturday and Sunday, according to NATO. The violation comes after Moscow began an air campaign in Syria last week to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"The aircraft in question entered Turkish airspace despite Turkish authorities' clear, timely and repeated warnings," NATO said in a statement on Monday. "In accordance with NATO practice, Turkish fighter aircraft responded to these incursions by closing to identify the intruder, after which the Russian planes departed Turkish airspace."

Turkey's foreign ministry said in a statement Monday that a Russian fighter aircraft entered its airspace on Saturday and departed after it was intercepted by two F-16 fighter jets from the Turkish Air Force, which was conducting patrols in the region.

The statement added that Turkey's foreign ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Ankara to strongly protest the violation, demanding that "any such violation not be repeated" and stressing that "the Russian Federation will be responsible for any undesired incident that may occur."

Turkey is a member of NATO and part of the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

 

MCCONNELL: OBAMA 'GOADING' DEMS TO BLOCK DEFENSE BILL: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhat the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats MORE (R-Ky.) suggested Monday that President Obama is pressuring Senate Democrats to block an annual defense bill ahead of a procedural vote on Tuesday.

"The Obama administration is goading Democrats into opposing the very legislation that sets out defense policy and authorizes funds for our military," McConnell said. "Democrats just voted to pass America's national defense bill this summer. Now they might filibuster it?"

McConnell's remarks come as the Senate is expected to take a procedural vote on the National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday after the House-Senate conference committee rolled it out last week. Sixty votes will be needed to move forward.

The Obama administration is threatening to veto the bill because of an extra $38 billion in war funding, which they argue is being used to help the Pentagon avoid congressionally mandated budget caps. President Obama and congressional Democrats want Republicans to negotiate a budget deal that would increase spending for defense and nondefense programs.

The House passed the NDAA last week, and McConnell's decision to take it up puts Congress on a collision course with the president.

Obama has threatened to veto every defense authorization bill in the past but has never done so.

The Senate passed its version of the NDAA by a 71-25 margin earlier this year.

 

REPUBLICANS: KEEP US TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN: Almost two dozen Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee will send President Obama a letter urging him to maintain a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan through 2016.

The letter, led by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), calls for the president to keep the current level of 9,800 troops through the end of next year, as the White House deliberates the pace of the drawdown.

"While we have achieved considerable progress in Afghanistan, the nation will once again become a safe haven for terrorism if we choose to abandon our investment," said the letter, which will be sent to Obama on Tuesday.

The letter comes ahead of testimony by the top commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, before the committee this Thursday.

It also comes as the Taliban seized the provincial capital of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan last week. Since then, Afghan forces have been battling to retake the city, with support from U.S. advisers on the ground. 

"Al Qaeda and its affiliates, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, as well as the rise of [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria], continue to present persistent and multifaceted challenges to the region," the letter said. 

"While the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces continues to improve, they still rely heavily on our training and expertise." 

The White House is reportedly considering a plan to leave between 3,000 to 5,000 forces there beyond 2016.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

-- Dems: Pass emergency spending bill to help Syrian refugees

-- GOP congressmen from Colorado assail Gitmo transfer possibility

-- Assad: No peace deal until 'terrorism' in Syria defeated

-- Trump: Russia will have to take care of ISIS

-- Bipartisan push grows for no-fly zones in Syria

 

Please send tips and comments to Kristina Wong, kwong@thehill.com, and Rebecca Kheel, rkheel@thehill.com 

 

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