WASHINGTON -- There is growing momentum among House Democrats pushing for an independent investigation into the U.S. bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, which killed 22 people earlier this month.
The Pentagon has dodged repeated calls from Doctors Without Borders to allow an independent investigation into U.S. airstrikes over the hospital. Instead, the U.S. has pointed to separate ongoing inquiries by the Army, NATO and a joint U.S.-Afghan team into the Oct. 3 attack as evidence of sufficient oversight.
Now, several Democrats are pushing for a civilian-led independent inquiry into whether the airstrikes violated the laws of war.
In a letter to President Barack Obama that is circulating on Capitol Hill, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) highlighted the need for an investigation by a group without ties to the U.S.
“Cooperating with a thorough investigation conducted by the United Nations or other independent body would send an important message to the world that the United States is unequivocally committed to the transparency and accountability required to ensure such a catastrophic event does not happen again,” Ellison wrote in a letter signed by fellow progressive caucus members, James McGovern (D-Ma.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
Earlier this month, the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, an independent group established by the Geneva Conventions in 1991, requested U.S. and Afghan consent to look into the hospital bombing. Neither the U.S. nor Afghanistan are party to the IHFFC, which has yet to be called upon to investigate alleged war crimes in its 24 year-existence.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who has also signed the Ellison letter, is circulating a letter of his own to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, calling for the Pentagon’s inspector general to take up the case.
“The Department of Defense may not be able to fully disclose the sensitive details of operations in Afghanistan to a third party, leaving that investigation without critical insight,” Garamendi wrote in an explanatory preface his colleagues, explaining why an inquiry by an outside group could be insufficient.
“Without clear rules for interaction and without a full understanding of American military operations, I fear that an international investigation alone could draw poorly-supported and unfair conclusions about the actions of our servicemembers,” added Garamendi.
The congressman’s office stressed that Garamendi does not oppose an international investigation by calling for the internal one, but instead supports an “all of the above” approach to looking into the bombing.
A spokesman for the office of the Pentagon’s inspector general declined to comment on whether they were considering launching an investigation, but noted that in the case of alleged war crimes, it is the Pentagon’s policy to task the head of the military branch involved in the incident to conduct an investigation.
A week after the attack, the Defense Department announced it would help rebuild the hospital and offer condolence payments to victims and their families.
While the Pentagon acknowledges responsibility for the bombing that killed 12 Doctors Without Borders staff members and 10 patients, they deny deliberately targeting the hospital, which is a protected site under the laws of war. But the medical group says it provided U.S. and Afghan officials with exact GPS coordinates of the facility days before the airstrikes, specifically “to avoid that the hospital be hit” during escalating fighting between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan military.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story and its headline mischaracterized Garamendi's position. He does not oppose an international investigation into the bombing; in fact, he supports the call for an international investigation, and is calling for an internal Pentagon investigation in addition to an independent, international one.