Home / Blog / United States Military’s Disregard of International Law

United States Military’s Disregard of International Law

By Tancrède Pages.

The United States military has once more acted as if it is above international law. Merely a day after condemning Russian bombing campaigns in Syria that resulted in heavy civilian death tolls, the US army authorized the bombardment of a Doctor Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières – MSF) hospital compound in the Afghan city of Kunduz on October 3rd. The result of the attack: the death of twelve staff members and at least ten patients, including three children, and the injury of thirty-seven, including nineteen staff members. This occurred in spite of the International Humanitarian Law that decrees hospitals in conflict zones to be protected spaces. High-ranking officials of the United States army, NATO, and Afghan security forces have been scrambling ever since to pacify the backlash of the egregious attack with an ever-changing use of language.

Within hours of the attack, U.S. Army Colonel Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, issued a typical excuse utilized by the US military in such cases of unnecessary violence towards non-combatant victims to the press:

“US forces conducted an airstrike in Kunduz city at 2:15 am (local), Oct. 3, against individuals threatening force. The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility. This incident is under investigation.”[1]

This obfuscation tactic is the standard one used by the U.S. whenever civilian structures are blown up and slaughter large numbers of innocent people with airstrikes. The term “collateral damage” emits an air of inevitability to the situation as the military is engaged in unconventional warfare with an enemy that implements guerrilla style tactics and regularly employ innocent bystanders as human-shields. As Glenn Greenwald points out, ‘the phrase itself is beautifully technocratic: it requires no awareness of how many lives get extinguished, let alone acceptance of culpability’.[2]

Unlike the countless anonymous Afghans who have lost their lives to indiscriminate bombs dropped by American planes, MSF, as an international humanitarian organization, has the capability of reaching out to Western media sources and have their voices heard, listened to, and most importantly, respected. MSF have refused to accept the “collateral damage” excuse and have been aggressively condemning the sustained bombing demanding the truth. Joanne Lui, president of MSF, released a statement on the organization’s website on October 6th, reiterating the inconceivable notion of “collateral damage”. She writes that the ‘hospital was well-known and the GPS coordinates had been regularly shared with Coalition and Afghan military and civilian officials, as recently as Tuesday, September 29th‘.[3] Either there was embarrassing lack of coordination and skill by the US military or this strike was a deliberate scare-tactic intended to discourage MSF facilities and staff to treat the wounded from all sides of the conflict, a policy that has long irked Afghan security forces.

October 4th marked the day the US military shifted away from their narration of “collateral damage”. A New York Times article cites an anonymous senior American military official saying that ‘there was heavy gunfire in the area around the hospital at the time of the airstrike, and that initial reports indicated that the Americans and Afghans on the ground near the hospital could not safely pull back without being dangerously exposed [and] American forces on the ground then called for air support’.[4] This explanation legitimizes the arbitrary murder of innocent civilians and humanitarian aid workers. Upon learning the new official narrative, MSF fought back decrying the statement as ‘an admission of a war crime’ whilst reiterating the fact that ‘there can be no justification for [the] abhorrent attack on the hospital that resulted in the deaths of MSF staff as they worked and patients as they lay in their beds’.[5]

The US military then altered their narrative yet again on October 5th. This time, the Pentagon’s to four-star commander in Afghanistan, Army General John Campbell, addressed the international press claiming that ‘local Afghans forces asked for air support and U.S. forces were not under direct fire just prior to the U.S. bombardment’ of the MSF hospital.[6] Having come under so much scrutiny by MSF, the US military has decided to distance themselves from all accountability and pass as an unknowing accessory to an attack initiated by the Afghan security forces.

The broader public cannot accept this. As citizens of the United States, we have the right to hold our military and its officials accountable for the actions they take on our behalf.

We must not permit the military to undergo their own investigation of the Kunduz attack as it will most likely result in a shadowy subcommittee that will not be able to release all necessary information to the public due questions of “national security”. Those responsible for this atrocious encroachment on international law and human decency must be held responsible and appropriately brought to justice. A fully transparent and independent international investigation is indispensable to no longer allow the US military forces to sweep their mistakes under the rug and keep skeletons hidden in their closet.



[1] https://twitter.com/stuartmillar159/status/650271482057113601

[2] Greenwald, Glenn. “The Radically Changing Story of the U.S. Airstrike on Afghan Hospital: From Mistake to Justification.” The Intercept. October 5, 2015. Accessed October 7, 2015.

[3] Lui, Joanne. “Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Denounces Blatant Breach of International Humanitarian Law.” Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International. October 6, 2015. Accessed October 6, 2015. http://www.msf.org/article/médecins-sans-frontières-msf-denounces-blatant-breach-international-humanitarian-law.

[4] Rubin, Alissa. “Doctors Without Borders Says It Is Leaving Kunduz After Strike on Hospital.” The New York Times. October 4, 2015. Accessed October 7, 2015.

[5] “MSF Response to Spurious Claims That Kunduz Hospital Was “A Taliban Base”” MSF USA. October 4, 2015. Accessed October 7, 2015.

[6] Kube, Courtney, Alastair Jamieson, and Halimah Abdullah. “Pentagon: Afghan Forces Asked For Airstrike on Hospital.” NBC News. October 5, 2015. Accessed October 7, 2015.


About AIDemocracy

Americans for Informed Democracy (AIDemocracy) is a 501 (c)(3) organization that relies on public donations to help our organization and keep our student-led programming focused on pressing global issues with timely events and activities. We'd love to see you make a donation or join out student network, and thank you in advance for doing so.

Check Also

Now Accepting Applications: Global Scholar Advisory Board

AMP Global Youth is looking for members of the 2019-2020 Global Scholar Advisory Board (GSAB). …