U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has called Saturday’s attack on an Afghan hospital, in which at least 22 people died, a tragic loss of life and promised a full, transparent investigation to determine if U.S. military personnel were involved.
Carter acknowledged American air assets were engaged in support of Afghan military operations around the contested northeast city of Kunduz at the time of the attack.
Carter, at the start of a five-day European trip, expressed sorrow at the loss of life at the hospital operated by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
"This is a tragic loss of life. Your hearts can only go out to innocent people who were caught up in this kind of violence. ... As far as our forces are concerned, that we be full (and) transparent about our investigation and also that we hold accountable, if there is someone to be accountable, anybody responsible for doing something they shouldn’t have done," he said.
Carter said American assets were engaged in the Kunduz vicinity. He could not say what connection with the attack on the hospital there might be at this time.
He added that the situation is confusing and complicated, and that it may take some time to get the facts. He has ordered U.S. forces to provide any medical aid needed in the area.
On Saturday, U.S. President Barack Obama extended his "deepest condolences" to the medical professionals and other civilians killed and wounded in what he called this "tragic incident."
Obama said he expected a full accounting of the facts and circumstances.
He said the U.S. will continue to work closely with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan government and its international partners to support Afghan forces as they work to secure their country.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. special operations forces advising and assisting Afghan forces had been taking fire and requested air support. Afghan officials say their forces came under attack from Taliban fighters from the hospital compound.
'Hit very precisely'
In a statement Sunday, Doctors Without Borders, which has withdrawn its staff from Kunduz in the wake of Saturday’s attack, repeated its call for an independent investigation.
The humanitarian group expressed "disgust" by statements from Afghan officials "implying Afghan and U.S. forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital, with more than 180 staff and patients inside, because they claim that members of the Taliban were present."
It said this amounts to an admission of a war crime.
MSF also said that not a single member of their staff reported any fighting inside the MSF hospital compound prior to the U.S. airstrike, and added that "in any case, bombing a fully functional hospital can never be justified."
MSF pointed out that the hospital "was repeatedly hit very precisely ... while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched."
It also said it had provided the GPS coordinates to "coalition and Afghan military and civilian officials" last week to avoid the hospital being hit. The airstrikes were described as a "sustained bombing" that continued for more than "30 minutes after U.S. and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington were first informed" of the airstrikes.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, in a statement sent to VOA denied the presence of its fighters in the hospital at the time of the airstrike.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called the airstrike "inexcusable."
"International and Afghan military planners have an obligation to respect and protect civilians at all times, and medical facilities and personnel are the object of a special protection," Zeid said. "If established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime."
No rush to judgment
RAND Corporation South Asia analyst Jonah Blank praises the humanitarian work of Doctors Without Borders and cautions against a rush to judgment.
"We really don’t know yet where the fault lies. There’s no dispute that this was a terrible tragedy that should never have happened. What we don’t know yet is why it happened," Blank said.
"We don’t know whether this was a mistake, which happens in war all the time, whether there were [Taliban] fighters who were nearby and targeted, or whether there was simply a lack of communication," he added. "I think one thing we do know, or should know, is that there is really no way I can see that this would have been an intentional strike on noncombatants in any way, shape or form."
Blank said now that the NATO-led international combat mission is over, such strikes are now routinely called in by Afghan security forces and the mere presence of U.S. special forces on the ground indicates the inability of Afghan forces to repel Taliban fighters on their own from Kunduz.
No fundamental change
Former U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Ryan Crocker told U.S. television Sunday he does not believe this tragedy will alter the view of the Afghan people that their country needs a continued U.S. presence.
"They will know it was a mistake. No country, no military does more than the United States to avoid this kind of thing. Tragically, it happened," Crocker said.
"I don’t think that is going to fundamental change how the Afghans look at us. Right now they need us badly. They’re desperate to see us stay there, stay engaged, support their military. That’s going to be the dominant reaction," he said.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan, currently about 9,800, are supposed to be reduced to about 1,000 by the end of 2016, but media reports indicate U.S. defense officials, citing a fragile security situation, want to keep a few thousand in the country beyond next year.
The residents of Kunduz are venturing out of their homes for the first time since last week when Taliban militants overran the city, which has a population of about 300,000.
Officials say some shops that had been closed during the siege opened on Monday.
Government forces are reported to have regained control of most of the city after engaging in gunbattles with the insurgents for a week.
Afghan security forces backed by U.S. airstrikes fought to drive out the Taliban.
Late last week, authorities in Afghanistan at least 60 people had been killed and 466 wounded in the battle between government troops and the Taliban for control of Kunduz.
Victor Beattie contributed to this report.