I’m back! I can’t promise that I will be posting regularly just yet but I am planning to ease back into the blog over the next couple of months. Now that my two major projects for 2016 (my book and my newborn daughter) have come to fruition, I’m also planning to focus on my new manuscript about British decision-making in the spring of 1940. Over the past twelve weeks I have, however, managed to sneak in some reading and some time to think about the current state of American foreign policy. One theme to which I have found myself drawn over the past couple of months is accountability. I will be exploring this idea over the next few weeks, and today’s post concerns accountability and responsibility in relation to the war in Afghanistan.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published a great piece written by Matthieu Aikins and illustrated with haunting and sometimes gruesome photographs by Victor J. Blue about an American air strike in October 2015 that destroyed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials MSF) in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The article does an excellent job of teasing out responsibility for the strike, which killed 42: was this a simple case of negligence on the part of American forces or was it something else? The article suggests—convincingly I think, although I am simplifying a bit here—that the Afghan security forces manipulated their American allies into destroying the hospital.
Why would local forces want the United States to destroy a hospital? MSF touts itself as an impartial actor in local conflicts, and consequently its mission is to provide medical care to individuals regardless of affiliation. As a result, the hospital in Kunduz and its staff treated many Taliban fighters alongside civilians and those loyal to the Afghan government. Aikins’s reporting suggests that the local population and Afghan security forces had long suspected (probably erroneously) that the hospital was serving as a headquarters of sorts for the Taliban. On October 3, 2015, the Afghan security forces seized an opportunity during an American mission to dupe the Americans into firing on the hospital, incinerating the building and those unable to escape in time.
The destruction of the hospital and the confusion surrounding American actions in October 2015 illustrate some uncomfortable truths about America’s involvement in Afghanistan: after fifteen years on the ground, we still don’t have a clear idea of what we are trying to accomplish there, we don’t understand the currents of local resentment and loyalties among the population, and we cannot be confident in the goals and capabilities of the Afghan forces. The American combat mission formally ended in 2014, and since then American forces on the ground have been restricted to two roles: training and advising the Afghan security forces, and attacking al Qaeda and IS. We saw in Kunduz in October 2015, however, that it is very difficult in practice for American forces to operate within these restrictive mandates and that a mission that is supposed to be purely defensive in nature may in fact be sliding down a slippery slope to offensive engagement with the Taliban.
Who bears responsibility for killing the Afghan civilians who died when American forces attacked that hospital in Kunduz? Is it the Afghan security forces, for tricking the Americans into firing on the wrong target? The Taliban, for making Kunduz a war zone? The United States, for sending its forces there in the first place? The Americans who made the decision to fire in the midst of shaky intelligence? Osama bin Laden, for launching 9/11 and drawing the United States into war there in the first place? I wish I had a good answer to this question. It seems that the New York Times can’t make up its mind, either. The print version of this story was titled “Reading the Wreckage: Did Afghan Forces Mislead the United States into Destroying the Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz?” As you will see if you click through, the title for the online version of the same article is, “Doctors with Enemies: Did Afghan Forces Target the M.S.F. Hospital?” In other words, the online version omits the United States entirely from the title and places all the blame on our Afghan allies.
 This does not mean that the United States bears no responsibility for the attack. The Pentagon recently disciplined sixteen soldiers for their conduct during the strike. The Afghan forces may have prodded the Americans to strike the hospital, but the accident raises important questions about our intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan and the rules for conducting such strikes. As Aikins’s article details, these “rules” are often unclear because of the nature of the American mission in Afghanistan.