NATO Forces

Kunduz: A Postmortem

The Kunduz tragedy now ruled “avoidable human error.” And that’s all.

You’ve probably heard by now that Kim Kardashian this week asked for a $1m necklace as a “push” gift, which is something rich baby daddies give their signficant others in compensation for kickstarting their rocketlike ascent to fame by banging Brandy’s brother. Hot from the pages of Yahoo’s “Parenting” section, I’d submit that Kim Kardashian is to parenting as General John F. Campbell is to accountability: they’ve read about it, they’ve managed to outsource it, so if something goes wrong, it’s never going to be their fault.

Which brings us to Afghanistan: yesterday General Campbell, commander of all NATO and US forces in Afghanistan and conveniently on a plane while a C-130 was turning an MSF hospital in Kunduz into a parking lot, publicly announced that a 3,000 page investigation into the matter reached this conclusion: it was a “tragic mistake” we should all blame on “avoidable human error.” Which avoidable human error until very recently commanded a Special Forces “A” team and has since been relieved because when your name is “Avoidable Human Error,” well, eventually, CPT Error, you’re going to get fired.

Because the NY Times can’t say “shitstorm,” they refer to a “cascade of errors” that meant that the Americans killed some civilians, and the Times put together a pretty decent graphic with imagery illustrating what happened in the skies over Kunduz last month. Basically everything that could go wrong, did. The aircraft took off in a hurry, so they didn’t get a full brief, which would have included, at least in theory, “All The Hospitals We Cannot Shoot Today.”

The crew of a U.S. Air Force AC-130H Spectre gunship from the 16th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron prepare to conduct a close air support mission in support of special operations ground forces Nov. 27, 2013, at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. The AC-130H and its crew are deployed from the 16th Special Operations Squadron, Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson/Released)

The crew of a U.S. Air Force AC-130H Spectre gunship from the 16th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron prepare to conduct a close air support mission in support of special operations ground forces Nov. 27, 2013, at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. The AC-130H and its crew are deployed from the 16th Special Operations Squadron, Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson/Released)

Then, thinking they’d been shot at by a missile, the aicraft moved to dodge that perceived threat. This meant all the super awesome shit that kills people and gave Danger Room bloggers a permanent weapons grade gizmogasm wasn’t calibrated correctly. So when they got a call that they should shoot a building at a particular set of coordinates, they saw an empty field.

Since even the Air Force knows that, most of the time, we don’t level fields because they’re already…level…they tried to figure out which building they SHOULD be shooting based on a description of the structure. And chose the hospital. Since the big fucking MSF flag wasn’t all that evident, you know, at night. And so they started shooting.

They had even managed to send in the coordinates of the building they were now targeting. Which they kept doing even after the system had re-aligned itself, and they had the correct coordinates. And since no one they called could do a spreadsheet search for coordinates, whoever was providing oversight for this whole debacle did not catch on to the fact that those coordinates were for…a hospital.

Then there was the problem with the live video feed because they still haven’t made the transition from Betamax to VHS and thats’ a gross non-truth but let’s be honest some of you reading were born well after some of the equipment on these gunships was first fielded. So even though the Americans were now killing civilians and in theory they could have caught that if they’d been getting the same kind of quality livestreaming they usually demand from the MWR on “Master Chef Mondays,” instead of whatever the military equivalent is of the “Please Stand By” screen that used to be a thing you would see on the teevee.

And…cue the righteous indignation from experts in the profession of arms like Christopher Stokes, MSF’s general director, who said things like, “It appears that 30 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of people are denied lifesaving care in Kunduz simply because the M.S.F. hospital was the closest large building to an open field and ‘roughly matched’ a description of an intended target.”

And since Human Rights Watch understands the fog of war better than anyone in or around Kunduz that night, they also made the levelheaded statement that this “warrants a criminal investigation into possible war crimes, but the Pentagon did not clarify whether recommendations made to senior commanders include possible criminal investigations.” And then something about criminal charges would be handed out to military personnel by people in the military, which is how things happen in military investigations, but it’s HRW and they’re smarter than everyone.

I said it before and I stand by it: when you’re the “good” guys, it is always going to be your fault, and no matter how many people you fire, or bring up on charges, or how many pages of an investigation you eventually release, and despite the brutal casual slaughter of Afghan civilians on a daily basis by the Taliban, when you raise your right hand and put on a uniform, if you fuck up, no matter who else was part of it, it’s going to be on you.

So I’m aware of that. I’m aware that MSF will always hold the Americans to a higher standard than say, Moscow, which has reportedly targeted more than one MSF hospital in Syria, and the war crime rhetoric has been jarringly absent from MSF releases on the topic. Because doing so could starve the narrative that you can’t spell “evil” without an “e” and an “i” and those are also letters that feature prominently in the “United States of America.”

“Russia” just has the “i” in common, so they’re probably fine. I’m not one to sound the trump of bias too often, but the idea that everything the US does outside it’s borders is nefarious is something that informs every response by MSF to this incident. General Campbell could have come to the podium with an SF captain’s head on a pike, and that still would not have been enough. Because it will never be enough for anyone who holds to the basic idea that the love of ‘murca, not money, is the root of all things evil.

The full report has yet to be released, and what’s left of its 3,000 pages once the Department of Defense finishes its redactions may yet be instructive. We might learn more than what General Campbell’s already told us, but that’s unlikely. What we do know is that innocents died due to a fuck up of collosal proportions, and someone with just the right amount of rank on their collar has already taken the blame.

The art of military shit rolling means that your scapegoat should never be too senior or too junior. Too senior, and there’s the potential that the people who promoted him might look like poor judges of character. Too junior, and you end up picking on one of America’s heroes. A sacrifical Special Forces captain? In uniform long enough he should know better, part of the officer class, but not so senior that losing his command would reflect poorly on too many senior people.

“Such mistakes can and should be avoided. But it is also a painful demonstration of the cost of war being brought upon us by terrorist groups and enemies of Afghanistan.”– Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan and man who’s keenly aware who’s buttering his naan, in response to US statements that the MSF bombing in Kunduz is one big oopsie. (TOLO)

Of course Ashraf Ghani’s totally fine with the American explanation for what happened in Kunduz. What else can he do? The US pays the bills and keeps him in office. Without American firepower and money, this country implodes, and quickly. It’s the nature of interventions that freeing the shit out of you means the Americans buy themselves a whole lot of leeway when they accidentally burn a hospital to the ground. It’s exploitative, it’s morally bankrupt, and pragmatically, there’s no other way Ghani could approach this.

His response will likely be heralded by pundits praising the good Afghan that Ghani is. They’ll contrast his reaction with Karzai’s responses to similar events when His Hamidness was in office. Karzai’s stance was more strident, but more befitting a man who sees himself as a leader of a sovereign nation, and not a talking point generator that just wants to keep the lights on. Karzai’s proclamations certainly played to the home crowd and were by no means altruistic, but over a year into the current administration, and the country’s arguably worse off than it ever was when it was Karzai’s Kabul.

What Kunduz illustrates at a profoundly disturbing level is the nature of war. Red in tooth and claw, it is a beast that consumes indiscriminately. That as soon as man takes up deadly arms against his fellow man, destruction follows. And no matter how precise we want it to be, sometimes things go wrong: equipment fails, people make bad choices, and other people burn to death in their beds. We have tried to sterilize war, to reduce it to a series of night vision video highlighting the mute destruction of the machinery of evil. And then something like Kunduz happens, and for a brief moment, we are forced to confront the bloody thing that we do in freedom’s name.


Also published on Medium.