Last October, a US airstrike on a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz that was operated by the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, killed 42 people and wounded 37 others. On Tuesday, the new commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan visited the city and apologized for the bombing.
"As commander, I wanted to come to Kunduz personally and stand before the families and people of Kunduz to deeply apologize for the events which destroyed the hospital and caused the deaths of the hospital staff, patients, and family members," said General John W. Nicholson. "I grieve with you for your loss and suffering, and humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness."
Nicholson, who assumed the role of Afghan commander in early March, also met with the relatives of patients and medical workers who died in the attack.
The Taliban conquered portions of Kunduz last fall as part of a larger offensive in northern Afghanistan. On October 3, a small unit of the US Army's Third Special Forces Group made up of roughly 35 soldiers advanced on the city alongside approximately 100 Afghan troops. As Afghan forces battled the Taliban for control of the city, an American AC-130 gunship began firing on the MSF hospital — the city's only major medical facility. The attack began at around 2:15 am and lasted for more than an hour.
Eleven minutes after the bombing began, MSF officials attempted to contact the US military and NATO to get them to stop the barrage. MSF later released a log of its communications that night that shows a NATO official texting, "I'll do my best, praying for you all," after being alerted to the ongoing assault.
MSF, which treats wounded individuals on both sides of the conflict, called the attack a "war crime" and a "grave violation of international law." MSF said that even though it had provided US forces with the GPS coordinates for the facility, the main central hospital building, which houses the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, and physiotherapy ward, was "repeatedly hit very precisely" by bombs for more than an hour, "while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched."
Immediately following the strike on the hospital, the Pentagon released a statement saying the hospital had been "collateral damage" in an airstrike against "individuals threatening" Afghan forces that were "in the vicinity."
But the Pentagon repeatedly changed its story in the days that followed, initially implying the strike was called in by Afghan forces and eventually conceding that US personnel had ordered the strike without being able to see the hospital. Afghan forces have repeatedly insisted that the hospital was occupied by militants, a claim that MSF has vociferously denied.
General John F. Campbell, who was the US and NATO commander at the time of the attack, testified before Congress on October 6 that the attack was a "mistake," and promised a thorough investigation. The next day, President Barack Obama apologized for the bombing.
The Pentagon's investigation, released in late November, found that the airstrike was a "tragic and avoidable" incident, primarily caused by human error. The US military has disciplined more than a dozen personnel, including officers, following the strike — but no one has been held criminally responsible.
MSF, which lost 12 staff members and 10 patients in the bombing, has called the Pentagon's internal investigation insufficient, and is pressing for an international inquiry.
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro