Personal Reflections on Kunduz and the Bombing of the MSF Hospital

When I heard Kunduz, a major city in the north of Afghanistan, had been overtaken by the Taliban, I was shocked. The shock did not stem from surprise, or a disbelief that Talib fighters might be capable of such a victory, despite the psychological impact, the possible loss of morale, that the takeover led to. Kunduz had long been the most problematic city in the north of the country. A mix of ethnicities, interwoven with vying political factions, meant that the Taliban were able to take advantage while the city was essentially mismanaged.

Local police, mostly militias, had been allowed too much power. Early on in his presidency, Ashraf Ghani, ostensibly in an effort to prove his intent to run the country as a meritocracy, called a video conference for local leaders and elders. He publicly fired a number of them (which seems highly culturally inappropriate). Nor was this the first area in which the Taliban was able to extend its rule over a significant territory in Afghanistan. All the same, the fact that the flag of the Taliban was flying over a major, multiethnic Northern Afghan city came to me as deeply disturbing. I wondered, and I am sure I was not the only one, if Kunduz could fall under Taliban control, even if for a brief period (because never did I consider this a permanent gain) then what else is possible? What other area might the Afghan government lose control of?

Yet what happened a few days later, after Afghan government forces were basically back in control of the city, was beyond what one thought possible, and caused me to consider. A hospital run by Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF, also known by its English name Doctors Without Borders) was bombed in an airstrike on Saturday, October 3. My first reaction was sadness and resignation. I thought, this could not have been done on purpose. Not by the Afghans, and certainly not by American or NATO forces. What could they possibly hope to gain? It was surely a tragic accident. But then I read the US Military’s first statement, which vaguely stated that they were “targeting officials that had been threatening the force” and that “there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.” Of course, there was not any question as to whether there had been damage to a medical facility. The subsequent investigations of the event, and the ways in which the event was discussed in the news and social media, caused me to think not only about the ways we accept certain stories as plausible and others as absurd, but that our interpretations of such stories as either “truth” or “conspiracy” can often relate to our own ontological categorizations of who is “just” and who is “evil”.

I decided to pay attention to social media, as I often do when such events happen, as it allows me to see what Americans and other internationals from many different political backgrounds think, as well as the views Afghans from many different backgrounds. I found a number of Westerners, including journalists, initially dismissing this as a clear accident. Why, they wondered, would the US ever do something so clearly against its interests in Afghanistan? Why would such tactically unsound decisions be made? In a couple of conversations, I was made to feel as if I was implying something so out of the realm of the possible – that perhaps the US somehow bombed MSF on purpose, for some reason – that I, and others bringing up this issue, were conspiracy theorists.

This brought to mind a talk that I attended recently at MIT by Didier Fassin, currently at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Fassin was an anthropologist, academic, a practicing medical doctor, and the vice-president of MSF from 2001-2003. Fassin’s talk centered around the idea of conspiracy theories, and although he mainly focused on medical conspiracy theories, such as those surrounding Ebola and HIV, his ideas can be extended to any situation in which such a theory gains traction. Fassin, put very briefly, points out that rather than dismissing conspiracy theories as irrational delusions, social scientists (and others so inclined) should study them, because widely-held beliefs, however irrational they might seem, speak volumes about the historical accidents that befell the social groups who maintain such beliefs. If one takes on the role of ethnographer and truly researches what people are saying, or if one takes on the role of historian and finds similar past events that have actually happened, then fears that seem completely incomprehensible to those who consider themselves logical can shed light onto the reality of people’s lives and subjective experiences.

Hence, one finds that although it may be highly unlikely that, say, AIDS was purposely spread among poor, black, African peoples, nonetheless the impact of historical and all too real monstrosities such as Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment must have taken its toll on people’s imaginary – and for good reasons. More abstractly, conspiracy theories can also lend collective psychological insight when a group is faced by a looming threat. An example of this might have been an increase of UFO sightings and fears of alien abduction the accompanied the cold war – on both the US and Soviet side. Exact reasons for these heightened fears are unknown, but we can conjecture. Similar processes are interesting not only from the point of view of individual and group psychology, but also in order to fully comprehend the history of social suffering of the targeted group.

To cite an event that happened more recently, in doing my ethnographic research in Afghanistan alongside my husband, Andrea Chiovenda, we found that at both our sites, although especially at his, in Eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border, theories abounded. One such was that the health workers coming door to door with polio vaccine for children were up to no good – they must be spies, or administering something harmful. Of course, it was later found out that Bin Laden was captured in Pakistan when a doctor orally administered the vaccine to children in his family’s compound, matched the DNA to Bin Laden’s family, and later the raid that resulted in his capture and death was carried out. It was certainly an ingenious way to find Bin Laden, but on the other hand, people found their fears justified and resistance to polio vaccine has grown.

To return to Kunduz, was I a conspiracy theorist, in being one who was relatively quick to accept it highly likely the United States had, for some reason, bombed the hospital on purpose? Perhaps, I thought, as in initial discussion it was pointed out how absurd this would be. But why was I willing to think it? It came from a distrust born from a long list of civilian deaths from US airstrikes. Looking inward, the event that caused me the most disbelief was the one involving nine boys collecting firewood on a hillside, gunned down by a heavy machine gun from a helicopter. It must have seemed obvious also to the helicopter crew that they were facing a group of pre-adolescents collecting firewood. How could this happen? My husband, who has served as army officer in several NATO war theaters, maintains that these types of “mistakes” occur when soldiers are allowed by their commanding officers to believe that no matter what they do, they will be protected from any repercussions, legal or of other kind. True, there have been prosecutions, but only for the most egregious cases. The rest are allowed to remain hidden behind the fog of war. Perhaps some of my own fears play into this. I have also slept in a small village in Eastern Afghanistan, in a group bed with several other women. Women who know families, individuals, who have died in drone or manned aircraft bombardment. We heard drones flying overhead. Logically I knew these were not the predator drones that would kill us, those usually are too high to be heard or seen. Perhaps it was some sort of aerial reconnaissance? I don’t know, and guess I never will. But even that did not put my mind at ease, because if I could hear that, what was out there I couldn’t hear? Was it possible that a suspected Talib leader slept in the men’s guesthouse? After all, my friends in the village told me they were sometimes forced to host Talib fighters on the move.Social and political relations in this part of Afghanistan are complex, and people may declare allegiance to the government at one time, and house the Taliban the next week, maybe because they are forced to, maybe because they are sympathetic, maybe because they want a dog in every fight. It did not change the women’s fears, it did not change mine.

I have gone on a bit about my personal experiences in Afghanistan and why it led me to think the worst about the MSF bombing to show a point. In this war zone, we see conspiracies all around. The soldier might believe every Afghan, even the old woman, even the little boy gathering firewood, is out to get him because of what some may have done. And the Afghan may fear every plane in the sky over their rural village, because some have bombed their loved ones, or, they have at least heard about such bombings from a friend or relative.

The idea that the bombing of MSF was on purpose has gone from conspiracy to pretty clear truth very quickly. From an account that there were fighters nearby, to an account that there were fighters in the hospital attacking US forces and Afghan forces, the story changed. And then it changed a bit more, to an account that Afghan forces were under fire from the hospital and that they requested the aerial assault. Now it has changed a bit more, with the claim being that someone, possibly a Pakistani ISI operative, was directing operations from within the hospital, and furthermore, that US Special Forces likely knew this. Of course, MSF denies this. It has now pulled out of the country, and Kunduz lost its only working trauma hospital. MSF claims that the hospital was attacked directly, over the period of an hour, even as calls were made to US and Afghan forces to stop the attack, and that furthermore, buildings around the hospital stand unharmed. They are calling the attack a war crime, and demanding an independent investigation.

Now, I will try to look at things from the other side. Were Taliban fighters using the MSF hospital as a base? Was an important ISI operative using the hospital as a sort of command center? Once again, it seems pretty absurd to think that Taliban fighters were actively firing from the hospital. MSF reactions against this proposition have been vehement. On the other hand, MSF is neutral in that it will treat fighters from both sides of the conflict.

Perhaps before tackling this question, it is important to understand what major operations, such as that on Kunduz, mean to Afghans who are invested in the idea of having a modern, nation state. The ability of Afghan National Army to take on such serious challenges as the Taliban takeover in Kunduz is very important for such Afghans. As counter-operations were taken against the Taliban in Kunduz, both my Facebook and Twitter feed filled with images of Afghan special ops entering the city. In the eerie green light of night vision goggles, I watched still images of numerous Taliban being captured, of houses being searched, and of strong Afghan Army Special Forces posing from the camera. I am not sure of the initial origin of these images, but I do know that they were highlighted on the Ministry of the Interior twitterfeed, and were also picked up by numerous of my Afghan friends. Afghans who want a modern nation state circulate these images to show that they, too, have built a functioning military capable of repelling threats against it. This is not the first time that images of the Afghan military hero circulated with this goal in mind.

As the extent of the bombing to the MSF hospital became clear, and as the United States military attempted to pawn the blame onto Afghan military forces who had called in reinforcements, those who were seeking to build the image of the brave Afghan soldier now faced a conundrum. How could they explain even the possibility that their military, of which they were so proud for retaking Kunduz after a short period, had called in airstrikes against a well-respected international humanitarian organization. It began to circulate that MSF had, in that very hospital, not only treated Talib fighters, but also had harbored a very important al-Qaeda member (I never did understand whether they meant medical treatment was provided to the al-Qaeda operative, or whether they meant that he was hidden from the authorities in the hospital. Of course, only after all of these ideas were cast about, the idea that an ISI operative had been sheltered in the hospital gained traction). So, the idea that Talib fighter might have been using the hospital as a human shield grew into the conspiracy that MSF was somehow in cooperation with al-Qaeda. I must stress that this was, as the events unfolded a viewpoint of a minority of people, but also of people who were well-respected and known for being level-headed. It should also be pointed out that the idea that a Pakistani ISI operative was working from within the hospital is now one being taken somewhat seriously.

The idea of an al-Qaeda conspiracy may have circulated for several reasons. One is simply that, although MSF does treat those from all sides of the conflict, there was no evidence that fighters were, on the night of the airstrike, using the hospital as a shield. Justification was sought as people put forth that some civilian casualties might be accepted to take out an important al-Qaeda (or ISI?) operative. Another may be more long-term fears about the intent of MSF when many fully nationalist Afghans (probably a minority of Afghans, but  get Western attention) are uneasy about any sort of rapprochement with the Taliban. MSF treatment of Talib fighters in the past might have led such rumors, such conspiracies, as the willingness to harbor important al-Qaeda members to grow.

At this point, many of the early conspiracy theories do not matter. It seems to me apparent that, whether or not Afghan forces called for the strikes, the United States military was aware of what the target was and was willing to strike anyway. President Barack Obama has issued an apology, while MSF calls the attack a war crime and calls for an independent investigation. I hope that an independent investigation will be allowed, although given the war theater context it seems extremely unlikely.

At the end of all this, what I find most disturbing is the way in which an ontological categorization of the battle as one of good vs evil has led many to believe that whatever the actions of the good, “righteous”, side, the United States military, NATO allies, and Afghan security forces, they cannot be interpreted as a war crime. In an interview,  Senator John McCain dismissed such allegations out of hand. He placed the blame rather on the Taliban, for having dared to attack Kunduz in the first place. I am no Taliban apologist, but the United States does not seem to see itself accountable for any attacks it carries out, whereas it sees the Taliban responsible for whatever actions that the US undertakes – even if it is something so compromising as bombing a hospital – if it is in the name of destroying evil. Certainly not every American, nor every Afghan who supports the Afghan government feels this way – but evidence suggest that a good number do. One piece of this evidence is the conspiracy theory, put in vague terms so that we can’t understand whether it was done for medical or political reasons, that MSF was harboring a high-level al-Qaeda official in their Kunduz office. The tendency to categorize one side as just and the other as evil, so common in American discussions about international affairs, seems to have taken a strong hold in Afghanistan.