Targeted bombing, precision bombing, surgical strikes. They all sound like the lancing of a boil, the removal of a very specific target from the face of the earth in a very clean manner with almost medical precision. Unfortunately, as we well know, this is not the case. When launching an attack on a target with a very explosive piece of equipment, there is always a chance that something can go a little bit wrong.
Such was the case on 3 October when an American airstrike landed smack bang in the middle of a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz, which at the time of writing remains embroiled at the centre of the conflict between the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Taliban. During the strike, 12 staff and 10 patients were killed, several burning to death in their beds and one dying on the operating table as staff rushed to cover in the face of a barrage of explosives.
The initial American response was a form of denial. They announced that the facility, which is the only trauma centre in northeast Afghanistan, had been a terrible case of collateral damage. This implies that it was never the target of the bombing, and that as such, a surgical strike most certainly had not been achieved.
Then, the story changed, as footage emerged showing the burning remains of the facility, it swiftly became clear that the hospital had not simply been collateral damage but instead had been subjected to a brutal air assault. In response, the US government’s story changed; it had not been collateral damage, but instead had been an airstrike on a Taliban position. MSF responded with utter fury. The US had just admitted to have conducted an airstrike on what they had known to be a medical facility.
This is an act in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. Rule 35 clearly dictates that any action undertaken against a position established to care for the wounded is prohibited. As such, the US government had just admitted to committing a war crime.
The story changed again. The US tried to lay the blame at the door of the ANA, claiming that they had not been informed of the hospital’s existence. By this point however, international anger was rising. President Obama had launched an internal investigation, as had NATO, and MSF was demanding that an independent investigator do the same.
The problem is, a surgical strike will only ever be as surgical as the commanding officer who gives the order to fire. We have known for a rather long time that while NATO officers claim to ensure that no civilian casualties will occur during airstrikes, they happen with a worrying consistency.
During the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan, the air campaign in Libya and recent airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, there has been one common feature – civilian casualties. And yet, the same methods have continued to be used.
Armed forces should not fire on civilians. Sadly, a precedent has been set of ignoring this. It has happened time and time again, always in the face of repeated criticism.
If we allow this to continue, should we really be surprised when our enemies follow our lead? Probably not.