The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bombing of Afghan hospital wasn’t a ‘war crime’

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) International President Joanne Liu and General Director of MSF Switzerland Bruno Jochum speak at a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday.(Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

There are few organizations I admire more than Doctors Without Borders. It goes to the world’s hellholes — wars, epidemics, floods, earthquakes, etc. — to provide medical aid to those who need it most and can afford it least. Its volunteers — yes, volunteers — work under horrendous and dangerous conditions when, to be just a touch vulgar, they could be making lots of money spiffing up the faces of the wrinkled rich. Still, I recoil from a statement made by the organization’s president, Joanne Liu. She has suggested that the bombing of the organization’s hospital in northern Afghanistan was a “war crime.”

I can appreciate her agony. MSF, the French acronym for the organization, lost 22 patients and volunteers and 37 others were injured. The immediate culprit was an American C-130 gunship, flying close support during the battle to retake the city of Kunduz from the Taliban. It is not clear, though, who ordered the attack — American or Afghan forces — or what exactly went wrong. As is almost standard in these situations, the explanations keep changing. The BBC said Liu “has dismissed the American explanation for the attack.”

“Until proven otherwise, we are working on the presumption of war crime,” she said in her statement.

If that’s the case, then who is the war criminal? Liu does not say, but by implication she suggests it could be the United States. In other words, she is suggesting that the United States ordered or permitted the bombing of a hospital. Maybe the Afghan military asked for the strike, but the United States made it happen.

This is deeply disturbing stuff — disturbing as well as offensive. One would think that Liu would first think the strike was an accident — the sort of thing that happens in war. But to think the United States purposely bombed a hospital is evidence of a mindset that suggest such deep hostility toward America that Liu ought to go work somewhere else.

I don’t for a minute think that the United States was involved in “war crime” here — unless the definition of a crime is so stretched as to encompass a horrible accident. Besides, I can’t imagine what purpose such a crime could serve. How does the bombing of a hospital advance U.S. interests in Afghanistan? You would think it would be counterproductive.

The horror of what happened to her staff and their patients may have caused Liu to say something she will someday regret. That day is now. She ought to clarify. Her organization has suffered enough already.