WASHINGTON -- An American armored vehicle on Thursday barged unannounced into the wreckage of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan that the U.S. bombed earlier this month, reigniting tensions between Washington and the aid organization over the Oct. 3 attack.
The armored vehicle forced its way through the closed gate of the ruined hospital in Kunduz at 1:30 p.m. local time, Doctors Without Borders told The Huffington Post in a statement Friday. The organization said it received no prior notice that American officials would be visiting and only learned after the vehicle's arrival that it contained investigators planning to explore the wreckage. Doctors Without Borders said the move violated a commitment by U.S., NATO and Afghan investigative teams to inform Doctors Without Borders before taking any steps involving the aid organization's team or facilities.
The intrusion may have damaged evidence at the site that could help explain the bombing, the organization says.
"Their unannounced and forced entry damaged property, destroyed potential evidence and caused stress and fear for the team," said Tim Shenk, a press officer for Doctors Without Borders. The organization lost 12 staff members and 10 patients in the bombing.
Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has called the bombing a "mistake," and President Barack Obama apologized to the president of Doctors Without Borders. The Pentagon, a joint U.S.-Afghan team and NATO are all investigating the causes of the incident. (Shenk declined to clarify on Friday which of these investigative teams had made commitments to provide notice before visiting the hospital site, but said members of all three teams were on the armored vehicle.)
But the incursion suggests that the government probes may be heavy-handed and ineffective, trampling on the aid organization's rights and, perhaps, on clues that remain at the site of the bombing. Photographs released Wednesday by Foreign Policy magazine showed how precarious the situation is within the ruined hospital, where charred human remains appear to lie on the dusty ground amid broken beds and ruined medical equipment.
The White House declined to comment Friday, instead deferring to the Pentagon, which did not respond to a request for comment.
One alternative to the Americans' already controversial approach presented itself this week when the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, an independent group created under the Geneva Conventions, said it had told the U.S. and Afghan governments it was willing to look into the incident. Neither government is party to the commission, however, and it's unlikely that an investigation will be opened.
Doctors Without Borders has called for an independent investigation since the incident occurred. Shenk noted Friday that the group's petition urging Obama to agree to an IHFFC probe garnered 50,000 signatures in 24 hours. The organization's push for an independent inquiry may gain traction now that it appears that the government investigations involve sending over armored vehicles unannounced.
Any investigation will need to investigate why the U.S. military targeted the hospital and whether it was aware it risked killing innocent aid workers and Afghans seeking medical treatment. Conflicting explanations on this matter have emerged. Campbell suggested last week that Afghan forces had asked for the strike, a disturbing allegation given previous evidence of Afghanistan mistreating Doctors Without Borders.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that U.S. special operations analysts had been looking into the hospital prior to the attack because they believed a spy from Pakistan -- whose military has links to the Taliban insurgency fighting the Afghan government -- was using the facility to work with the Taliban. The AP report was unable to confirm whether the American officials who launched the strike were aware of the analysts' suspicions.
The controversy over the bombing comes at a difficult time for U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Just days before the incident, the Taliban overran the city of Kunduz, where the hospital is located. Though the insurgents have since been pushed out by the Afghan military, the high-profile victory served as another indication that the government in Kabul may not be ready to take over security in the country as early as the U.S. would like it to.
Obama announced Thursday that he would abandon his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan before the end of his presidency, and instead maintain present force levels through most of 2016 before downsizing to 5,500 troops in 2017.
White House officials told reporters Thursday that despite the bleak picture, things were going according to plan -- sort of.
"The fact that the president wants to expand those operations and continue that strategy is actually an indication that it's working and that we're seeing progress," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
UPDATE: 2:50 p.m. -- MSF issued a statement referring to the vehicle as an "armored vehicle," not a "tank," as in its initial statement on the incident. The article has been updated throughout to reflect this change.
This story has been updated to include further information from Doctors Without Borders about which investigative teams were involved in the incident on Thursday.
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