KABUL — Over the past five years, suspected U.S. airstrikes that killed civilians in Afghanistan often played out like this:
Then-President Hamid Karzai would fire off biting statements accusing the U.S. military of incompetence. Protesters would then pour into the streets, spewing even more pointed words for the United States. And Afghan news outlets would report the fallout in wall-to-wall coverage.
But on Sunday — after a suspected U.S. airstrike killed 22 people at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz over the weekend and horrified humanitarian groups around the world — the response in Afghanistan was surprisingly muted.
Instead of harsh criticism aimed at the U.S. military, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stayed silent except to convey his “sorrow” over the deaths of civilians. No large protests were reported. And Afghanistan’s leading news outlet, Tolo News, had largely dropped its coverage of the hospital bombing by Sunday evening. It instead aired several stories about Afghan troops battling the Taliban fighters who seized control of Kunduz a week ago.
The tempered tone here comes as Afghan politicians and military leaders are growing increasingly anxious over President Obama’s pending decision about whether he will stick to his pledge to withdraw all remaining 9,800 U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2016.
As Obama’s decision draws closer, Afghan politicians are growing more cautious in how they respond to alleged American blunders, observers say.
“There is a thought that if people start speaking out about mishaps and seem to be opposing international troops that [Obama] might just say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan member of parliament from northern Badakhshan province, where the Taliban has taken over several districts.
In Madrid, where he arrived Sunday, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter expressed his “thoughts and prayers for the innocent lives lost” in the hospital attack in Kunduz but stopped short of an apology or confirming that U.S. military forces were responsible for the destruction.
“This is a tragic loss of life,” Carter said. “Your hearts can only go out to innocent people whose lives were lost in this kind of violence.”
Carter said joint investigations by the U.S. military, NATO and the government of Afghanistan have begun, and he pledged to make them public once they are completed. But he cautioned that the bombing of the hospital occurred under hazy circumstances and that investigators are just starting to piece together exactly what happened.
“The situation there is confused and complicated, so it may take some time to get the facts, but we will get the facts and we will be full and transparent about sharing them,” he said.
Carter confirmed that some U.S. troops were in the vicinity of the hospital and that they reported coming under attack. He also confirmed that U.S. fighter aircraft were nearby and opened fire, but he said U.S. military officials could not say for certain that that led to the destruction of the hospital.
He said Kunduz “continues to be a contested area” and that neither U.S. nor Afghan government forces have been able to take control of the hospital compound, further hampering the investigation.
Carter said he had spoken with Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, but had not ordered a halt to U.S. airstrikes near Kunduz. “I’ll let him make those calls and adjustments,” Carter said.
Some Afghan military leaders and politicians on Sunday appeared sympathetic to the controversy that the U.S. military now finds itself embroiled in.
“When insurgents try to use civilians and public places to hide, it makes it very, very difficult, and we understand how this can happen,” Koofi said. “You have two choices: either continue operations to clean up, and that might involve attacks in public places, or you just let the Taliban control. In this case, the public understands we went with the first choice, along with our international allies.”
In Kunduz, the acting governor, Hamdullah Danishi, also suggested that the airstrike was warranted.
He said Taliban fighters had been using the Doctors Without Borders compound to plot and carry out attacks across the city, including firing rocket-propelled grenades from the property.
“The hospital campus was 100 percent used by the Taliban,” Danishi said. “The hospital has a vast garden, and the Taliban were there. We tolerated their firing for some time” before responding.
Danishi said the suspected U.S. airstrike had been aimed along the perimeter of the hospital grounds. He said the main hospital building, where most of the causalities occurred, caught fire but was not the main target.
Doctors Without Borders strongly disputed suggestions that any Taliban fighters were inside the hospital at the time of the attack.
“The gates of the hospital were all closed so no one that is not a staff, a patient or a caretaker was inside the hospital when the bombing happened,” the group said in a statement.
Along with 12 Doctors Without Borders staff members, the airstrike killed 10 patients at the hospital, including three children, hospital officials said.
Christopher Stokes, general director of Doctors Without Borders, is demanding an independent review of the incident.
The organization, he said in a statement, is “disgusted” by some Afghan officials’ attempts to justify the attack.
A decision to raze the hospital because Taliban were present “amounts to an admission of a war crime,” he said. The organization demanded “a full transparent and independent international investigation.”
All of those killed in the airstrike were Afghans, according to hospital officials. Still, for some current and former Afghan officials, the biggest worry on Sunday appeared to be that the fallout from the strike could cause the U.S.-led coalition to scale back future military operations.
Earlier this year, after the bulk of U.S. troops left Afghanistan, Afghan leaders were angered that their military could no longer consistently rely on U.S. air power. As a result, Afghan officials said, Taliban and Islamic State militants rapidly expanded their footprint in parts of the country. Over the summer, however, the number of airstrikes rose again, and after the Taliban advanced into Kunduz, Afghan forces relied on coalition air support to prevent their last safe haven in the city, the airport, from being overrun.
“The U.S. needs not only to keep, but to increase its presence in Afghanistan,” said Jamil Junbish, a retired general and former deputy interior minister. “Reduction of troops will turn Afghanistan into another Iraq or Syria.”
That message — not the embarrassment associated with the hospital bombing — is what many Afghans hope resonates with Obama, said Mohammad Nateqi, a political analyst and former Afghan diplomat.
The United States “knows the Taliban, and terrorists are like a cancerous gland,” Nateqi said. “They will not just abandon us.”
Whitlock reported from Madrid. Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.