When is it OK to bomb a hospital?
(AWTWNS 2 May 2016)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 2 May 2016 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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When is it OK to bomb a hospital?

2 May 2016. A World to Win News Service. The al-Quds hospital was one of the very few remaining in Aleppo and the only one with facilities and personnel to treat children. It was hit by one or more air strikes on the night of 27 April. Video from a surveillance camera in a hospital corridor shows Dr Muhammad Waseem Moaz, said to be the leading and perhaps last paediatrician in the city, closing a door, adjusting his hospital scrubs and stepping toward the emergency room just as an explosion blows in the front door and the walls and ceiling collapse. He and at least 26 other staff and patients were killed in the attack on this hospital supported by the international medical volunteer organization Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Two other hospitals in the Aleppo area were hit the same day, also in air strikes carried out by the Bashar al-Assad government, according to the New York Times. An Al Jazeera military analyst stated it is standard procedure, in these kinds of wars against insurgents, to hit vital civilian facilities, in order to terrorize and drive out the civilian population and isolate opposition fighters.  But such acts are supposedly illegal under international law, specifically the Geneva Conventions that define the “rules of war.”

In short, the attack on the al-Quds hospital was criminal, a war crime to be unequivocally condemned and the people behind it brought to justice. Few would believe it was an accident, because it fit an established pattern and served identifiable goals.

Yet what about the US attack on a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last October? Cannon fire and strafing killed 42 people, including three children and 14 medical staff, and injured dozens more. Patients burned alive in their beds. Surviving medics had to operate on the wounded, including each other, on a desktop standing amid the rubble.

The US refused to allow an independent international body established by the Geneva Conventions to investigate. Instead, the Pentagon investigated itself, concluding, in a report released 29 April 2016 that the “tragic strike” was “unintentional”, caused by a series of human errors and “equipment failures”.

These are the undisputed facts about the Kunduz hospital attack:

  • The medical NGO had given the US armed forces the precise coordinates of the hospital’s location long before the attack.
  • A minute before the AC-130 gunship took off from the Bagram base, headquarters for US forces in Afghanistan, crew members gave their superiors the coordinates of the target they intended to strike – the hospital.
  • The aircraft flew low enough over the hospital to see it. It was marked by MSF banners and a prominent hospital logo on the roof.
  • About eleven minutes after the gunship began firing shells and strafing the hospital, MSF began calling Afghan and US military and civilian officials to halt the attack. The head of the US Central Command said in a 29 April news conference that the order to stop the assault was given 19 minutes later, or about a half hour after it began. But according to MSF, the aircraft’s cannons pounded the building for more than an hour. Machine gun fire hit people trying to flee the burning building.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, as MSF spokespeople pressed hard on the US government for an explanation, the Pentagon had little to say. They let stand an Afghan government claim that Taliban fighters had taken over the hospital and were using it as a base against attacking government forces. There was an implication – and still is, in the latest Pentagon report – that the gunship was defending American soldiers, or at least that the US military thought that was the case. There were, it turns out, no US ground troops in the area, and no arms in the hospital, although the medical staff quite correctly refuses to distinguish among those who come for help. But even if the military’s alleged fears were true, and even if they attacked the hospital by mistake, MSF has clearly stated that the intense and prolonged attack was on a densely populated area and should never have taken place no matter what.

Citing the haste with which the aircraft took off, the failure of communications and targeting systems and the crew’s disorientation, the US announced it would include reprimands in the files of unnamed soldiers and officers, but that there would be no courts-martial because no crime was committed – not murder (premeditated killing), not manslaughter (killing without seeking to do so) and not even criminal negligence. A driver whose headlights failed and became disoriented and then, instead of stopping, ran into a school bus would not get off so lightly. In short, as MSF points out, the US is saying that such things are the inevitable cost of war, just collateral damage.

This conclusion is more than an exoneration for the solders and officers involved, which would be bad enough. It is a self-exoneration of the whole US military chain of command and the government headed by that military’s commander in chief, Barack Obama.

It is a “rule of war” that commanders are responsible for the actions of their troops. What’s more, Obama, through his silence in public and his obvious, if never publicly spoken, approval of the Pentagon cover-up, could be held criminally responsible before and after the fact, if the same rules were applied to the US as to countries and armies the US and its allies and friends have defeated, from Germany and Japan in World War 2 to Serbia and African countries today.

But the “cost of war” point has to be addressed. Is this war itself right or wrong? This the basic question. Underlying the Pentagon’s argument’s is the claim that because it is right for the US to wage this war, its cost has to be accepted. MSF and other volunteers don’t address the question, and yet it is the heart of the matter.

What is the US fighting for in Afghanistan? The US supported Islamists when that seemed to suit American interests (grabbing Afghanistan from its Soviet rivals). Then the US gave the Pakistani secret services the green light to bring the Taliban to power, although that turned out to be problematic for the US. Now Washington is sending troops and gunships to save the Kabul government – the Islamist government it installed – from other Islamists.

When the US first invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the pretext was to protect “American lives” from Islamic fundamentalist attacks and “liberate” the Afghan people. What we have seen since then is that Western invasions, occupations and other crimes provide the conditions for Islamism to flourish. Further, the idea that “American lives” are worth more than those of anyone else, including children murdered by US forces and /or US-supplied weapons and munitions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Palestine and elsewhere, is a keystone in the imperialist ideology that justifies such crimes and turns ordinary people into accomplices.

Why is Obama presiding over the bombing of hospitals? To defend his “legacy”, as the man behind the “surge” that saw Afghanistan overrun by US troops – and that breathed new life into the Taliban, the president who still keeps 10,000 US soldiers and 3,000 other Nato troops there today? If Obama ever intended to end that war, or US aggression in general, as some people fooled themselves into believing, why the surge, and why the continuing insistence that US troops cannot leave until American interests are secured?

The purpose of a war determines the way it is fought. A war of liberation has to rally the people; it has nothing to rely on but the active participation of increasing numbers of the masses of people.  Not only would it not target civilians, it would fight in a way meant to minimize harm to the people whose interests it serves, even at risk to its own forces. A reactionary war such as that waged by the US-led occupiers in Afghanistan – and the Islamist opposition – necessarily takes all Afghans as potential targets because the interests behind it are completely opposed to the interests of the people.

The Kunduz hospital attack, and the continuing occupation it serves, are driven by the same geopolitical interests that led the US to invade Afghanistan in the first place: to dominate a key region and keep out its rivals. These crimes are part of trying to hold on to global domination in a worldwide system of exploitation and oppression presided over by the political representatives of finance capital headquartered in a handful of countries.

Heroic volunteers are going to have to try to save children and other civilians burned alive again and again, until that imperialist system is brought down.

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In the article “Mass deaths in the Mediterranean: a ‘non-event'” in AWTWNS160425, the following paragraph was unclear:

“The European authorities have had to go back and forth on this, sometimes trying to emphasize their “humanitarian” values so that the indifference to human life of their states and system does not stand naked. Almost exactly a year before this latest criminal tragedy, after 800 people drowned under similar circumstances, Europe also launched Operation Sofia, which has rescued 12,600 people. Almost four times that number are believed to have drowned since then.”

“Almost four times” refers to the number of people who drowned in the Central Mediterranean during Operation Sophia from April 2015 to April 2016, very approximately 3,200.

To give more precise and recent figures, 2,892 people were reported dead or missing while attempting this crossing during 2015, and 976 in 2016 as of 1 May (International Office for Migration).

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