WASHINGTON -- The general who oversees the American operation in Afghanistan said at a congressional hearing on Thursday that the U.S. does not automatically launch airstrikes whenever Afghan forces request them.
Gen. John Francis Campbell made his comments at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in the wake of a U.S. strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital that the organization has called a "war crime." The military has said that Afghan forces called in the strike.
Afghan officials have variously claimed that the Taliban were using the hospital as a base -- a claim the hospital disputes, and for which there is no evidence -- and that the facility regularly treated wounded insurgents. However, Campbell said, such a strike would not be warranted merely because the hospital treats all combatants, as is encouraged by the laws of war.
"Is there ever a scenario where it is okay to strike a hospital?" Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) asked at the hearing.
"A hospital is a protected facility. We would not target a hospital," Campbell said. "When the Afghans call for fire, that's not an automatic response. So every day, the Afghans ask me for close air support and we just don't go fire someplace. That has to go through a rigorous procedure, to put aerial fires on the ground -- a U.S. process under the U.S. authorities."
"So we have to figure out what happened in that case," Campbell added. "I don't want people to think that just because the Afghans call fire, that there's automatic fire anywhere they want it. That's not the case."
Doctors Without Borders has said that it provided the hospital's coordinates to the U.S., as is common practice, and that as soon as the bombing started, staff for the organization made frantic calls to Kabul and Washington. Yet the strikes continued for more than an hour, killing 22 patients and staff, some of whom were burned alive in the intensive care unit.
O'Rourke asked Campbell if he'd seen reports that Taliban had been treated at the hospital, and that Afghan forces had previously raided the facility in response. Campbell said he had seen reports that insurgents had received treatment there. "That would not be a justification for a strike on the hospital?" O'Rourke asked.
"No," Campbell said.
The investigation into the incident should be completed within 30 days, he added.
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