Mistaken Kunduz Airstrike Results in Greater Focus, Official Says


The importance of international humanitarian law and how the Defense Department conforms to and complies with it is critical, Mark Swayne, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability and humanitarian affairs, said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Security Forum here yesterday.

Swayne discussed the department’s mitigation efforts that followed the accidental 2015 U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in the panel discussion, “In the Cross-Hairs: The Surge of Violence against the Health Sector.”

Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, briefs the media on the investigation into an Oct. 3, 2015 airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, during a news conference at the Pentagon, April 29, 2016. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Clydell Kinchen
Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, briefs reporters at the Pentagon, April 29, 2016, on the release of the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan investigation into the U.S. airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2015. DoD photo by Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen
Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, briefs the media on the investigation into an Oct. 3, 2015 airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, during a news conference at the Pentagon, April 29, 2016. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Clydell Kinchen
Votel Briefing
Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, briefs reporters at the Pentagon, April 29, 2016, on the release of the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan investigation into the U.S. airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2015. DoD photo by Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen
Photo By: Sgt. 1st Class Clydell Kinchen
VIRIN: 160429-D-LN567-014

According to published DoD News reports, the trauma center was mistaken for a combatant target in Kunduz Oct. 3, 2015, after the Afghan government requested U.S. close-air support while Afghan troops conducted clearing operations in the area. The accidental airstrike left 42 people dead and 229 wounded, according to reports.

DoD Claimed Ownership Of Strike

“[The airstrike] was a mistake made by our Department of Defense that resulted in the attack against a medical facility in Kunduz, and we claimed ownership and responsibility for it,” Swayne said, encouraging the international community to also claim ownership when tragic errors occur.

“[We are] strongly committed to upholding the international humanitarian law protection of civilians, which includes humanitarian personnel and facilities,” he said.

“Since the tragic mistake of Kunduz, we have taken proactive measures to demonstrate our commitment to international humanitarian law, including development of best practices that often exceed IHL requirements that can be used as examples for other states,” Swayne said.

Mitigation Policies Outlined

He cited examples of mitigation efforts taken since the Kunduz incident:

-- The United States and 48 U.N. member states at the World Humanitarian Summit in May signed a declaration affirming the importance of adhering to international humanitarian law. The declaration cites unhindered humanitarian access and includes protection of humanitarian personnel, medical facilities and internally displaced persons.

-- President Barack Obama signed an executive order to “memorialize” the best practices developed by DoD to protect civilians during operations involving the use of force, and

-- Defense Secretary Ash Carter issued a department-wide statement of principles in October that addresses protection of medical care provided by impartial humanitarian organizations during armed conflict.

“These principles reflect the existing legal protections drawn principally from the Geneva Convention,” Swayne said.

In addition, to help alleviate the consequences of the October 2015 airstrike, DoD offered condolence payments to the wounded and families of those killed and is working to reconstruct the building destroyed by the airstrike. DoD also took steps to help alleviate the region’s need for medical care, such as purchasing medical equipment for, and constructing a security perimeter around, a separate Kunduz Regional Hospital, defense officials said.

Principles Highlight Importance

DoD takes great care in its operations and training to mitigate the likelihood of civilian harm, and continually seeks to improve the use of its best practices, he added.

“We have a robust system of investigating credible reports of civilian harm, so that we take more appropriate steps to address such incidents,” Swayne said.

“We didn’t come up with anything new,” he said of the statement of principles. “It’s all the things we were already doing inherent to international humanitarian law, but it highlights the importance of stressing to our force  how to conduct and operate, and it [gave us] something we can use with our partners.”

(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)