The Pentagon has completed its investigation into the deadly U.S. airstrike that destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan on Oct. 3, killing at least 30 patients and staff members.
But Jason Cone, the executive director of the group, says the report raises more questions than it answers. “It doesn’t leave us with a lot of comfort where we operate in war zones today,” he says. “What we see in this report is an admission of gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces. It’s a serious violation of the law.”
According to the report, the hospital bombing was the result of human error — a “tragic and avoidable accident.” But Cone says U.S. forces shouldn’t have acted if they were uncertain: Hospitals in conflict zones are protected under humanitarian law, and American combatants should have checked and cleared the area before releasing fire.
For years, Cone says, Medecins Sans Frontieres — as the group is also known — has operated under a simple framework: It will provide medical care to any unarmed patient in need, soldier or civilian. We asked Cone to share his thoughts on the Pentagon investigation — and where the Kunduz attack leaves his organization.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Are you satisfied with the Pentagon’s answers? Where does it leave you in your call for an independent investigation of the attack?
We’re not investigators; that’s why we asked for an independent, impartial investigation of this attack to confirm whether the rules of war have been broken.
We are shocked that the airstrike was carried out when U.S. forces had a no-strike list that we should have been on. A civilian hospital should never be targeted. It should at least get a warning before its attack.
You said you were told that there are 3,000 pages in the Pentagon’s report. Have you read it all?
All we know right now comes from the five-page statement issued by Gen. John Campbell and from the very brief conversation we had with him just a couple of hours before the public release of that statement. That’s all we have to go on — a sliver of that information.
When will you get the rest?
We have no idea. We’ve been told that the report has been shared with the special operations campaign and will go through a redaction process.
When we spoke with you last month, you were clearly in anguish. How has the organization been coping with this loss?
No amount of investigation is going to bring back our staff or patients. We lost 14 of our colleagues who chose to stay at the hospital even though their city was in a war zone. It’s a devastating loss, not just for MSF but [for] Afghanistan, a country that needed their talents.
And these doctors and nurses left behind young children, family, friends. Nothing will bring them back, but we’ll carry on their memory.
How has the airstrike affected your work in areas of conflict?
We’ve always known that it’s very dangerous to work in war zones. But we’ve always functioned under the same set of rules. We provide medical care to anyone who comes to us, as long as they don’t bring weapons.
We don’t protect ourselves with a military. Our only protection is the transparency of our intent to provide medical assistance and humanitarian aid alone.
In Afghanistan, we did everything we could to make sure everyone was aware of our presence — but that was all lost.
We’ve reconfirmed locations with our contacts to reiterate that we’re there to treat all sides. We can provide small dose of humanity in very inhumane circumstances. That’s the reason we exist.
Has it affected the willingness of doctors and nurses volunteering for MSF?
No, our staff is committed to providing care during conflict. In fact, we’ve seen incredible solidarity.