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The AP's Kunduz hospital bombing report raises some disturbing questions

Doctors Without Borders staffers huddle in their Kunduz hospital after being hit by US airstrikes.
Doctors Without Borders staffers huddle in their Kunduz hospital after being hit by US airstrikes.
(MSF/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Thursday afternoon, the Associated Press dropped a big story regarding the earlier American airstrikes on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. According to reporter Ken Dilanian, US special forces analysts were investigating the hospital for Taliban links before the bombing, and knew it was a hospital — but it's not clear if this is related to the airstrike, or whether the commanders responsible for the strike had access to their intelligence.

Dilanian's report doesn't prove, conclusively, that the US knowingly and intentionally bombed a hospital. But it does raise some serious questions about who knew what about the Kunduz hospital — and about the consequences of America's ongoing air war for Afghan civilians.

What the AP story says

  • American special forces analysts believed a spy in the employ of Pakistan's intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was using the Kunduz hospital "to coordinate Taliban activity."
  • According to Dilanian's sources, "the intelligence suggested the hospital was being used as a Taliban command and control center and may have housed heavy weapons."
  • However, it's not yet clear if the strike had anything to do with this intelligence, or whether the commanders who ordered the strike even knew about the intelligence or the analysts gathering it.
  • A former intelligence officer familiar with the incident told Dilanian that "some US analysts" believe the strike killed the Pakistani ISI spy who'd been helping the Taliban — and the analysts are said to believe, appallingly, that the strike was thus "justified."

What this does and doesn't tell us

This new information does not yet prove that "the hospital was intentionally targeted," as Doctors Without Borders official Meinie Nicolai says in Dilanian's piece. It may be the case that this intelligence gathering was unrelated to the strike and unknown by the commanders who ordered it. The US-led military force in Afghanistan is quite large. It stretches across several bureaucracies that are not always known for sharing information well, and that typically silo sensitive information for operational security.

However, the AP report does raise at least a theoretical possibility that the intelligence gathering may be somehow related to the strike. Could the intelligence have somehow trickled over to whoever ordered the strike? Did the suspicions of an ISI presence spread, but somehow not the information that this was a hospital? Or, worst of all, did the US military order the strike based on this intelligence, knowing it was a hospital?

The story doesn't settle these questions, and doesn't claim to, but there is enough uncertainty around this strike to merit more investigation. As Dilanian notes, the Pentagon has repeatedly shifted its story on how the airstrike was authorized, sometimes saying the strike was called by US troops and other times by Afghan troops. Doctors Without Borders' Nicolai says that, according to their local staff, there was no fighting in the immediate vicinity of the hospital.

Either way, the Taliban link is uncertain as well. As Dilanian notes, "No evidence has surfaced publicly to support [US] conclusions about the Pakistani's connections or his demise."

We'll have to wait for a more thorough accounting: The US government is conducting an investigation, and Doctors Without Borders is asking for an international one, though the US is not supporting that.