The Evolving U.S. Line on the Kunduz Airstrike

Initial explanations said the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital was collateral damage or an accident, but a general now says the Americans made the decision to launch the attack.

General John Campbell arrives at a Senate hearing Tuesday. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

How did the U.S. bomb a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan? The group and the world have questions, and the U.S. government has answers—several of them, with the latest coming from General John Campbell in a Senate hearing Tuesday morning.

“The hospital was mistakenly struck,” he said. “We would never intentionally strike a medical facility.”

Following the bombing on Saturday, a U.S. military spokesman on the ground in Afghanistan said that an airstrike “may have caused collateral damage to a nearby medical facility,” but the U.S. didn’t acknowledge hitting the hospital. The backlash against that was fierce, with MSF angrily rejecting that as inadequate for the deadly incident that killed 22 people.

Next, Defense Secretary Ash Carter admitted in a statement that the hospital had been hit in a “tragic” accident.

On Monday, Campbell revised the official narrative, saying the U.S. was simply carrying out a strike requested by Afghan fighters on the ground. “We have now learned that on October 3rd, Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. forces,” he said. “An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck.”

But in Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Campbell clarified: The Afghans made the request, but the decision was made within the U.S. chain of command. “Even though the Afghans request that support, it still has to go through a rigorous U.S. procedure,” he said.

To recap, the U.S. first speculated that there might be collateral damage; then said the strike had been an accident; then blamed Afghans; and now has admitted the final decision sat with U.S. officials. A certain amount of confusion is unsurprising—the fog of war makes it tough to immediately determine what happened. But it looks bad for the official story to keep changing, and it’s bad news that the blame is moving closer to the U.S.—especially as Doctors Without Borders argues the airstrike was a war crime. MSF says U.S. and Afghan officials were informed of the exact location of the hospital.