Refugee Camp / Mack Male

October 8, 2015; New York Times

President Obama issued an unusual apology in a telephone call yesterday to Dr. Joanne Liu, the international president of the NGO Doctors Without Borders, for the U.S. bombing of its hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The attack, which he called “mistaken,” killed 22 and wounded 37. Officials say the apology included a commitment by the president that he would make whatever changes were necessary to make such incidents less likely in the future and that he would ensure that a “full accounting” of who was to blame would be completed, leading to a consideration of changes to the military’s rules of engagement.

The apology was not unexpected. On Wednesday Gen. John F. Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, told congressional leaders that the attack was “a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.” and press secretary Josh Earnest revealed that the president had concluded “that he had learned enough about this matter to conclude that it was appropriate for him to offer an apology.”

The president’s apology was met only with an acknowledgement that the call had been “received,” as Dr. Liu reiterated her demand for an independent investigation led by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission.

In a press conference yesterday, Liu had said that the hospital’s patients burned in their beds, and medical staff members were killed even as they worked. “Our colleagues had to operate on each other,” she said. “One of our doctors died on an improvised operating table—an office desk—while his colleagues tried to save his life.”

“It is unacceptable,” said Liu, “that the bombing of a hospital and the killing of staff and patients can be dismissed as collateral damage or brushed aside as a mistake.”

Doctors Without Borders has expressed skepticism about the independence of the three investigations in progress—variously initiated by NATO, a joint United States-Afghan group, and the Defense Department—and their ability to uncover the truth.—Ruth McCambridge