Under pressure from outraged humanitarian groups, President Barack Obama made phone calls Wednesday to personally apologize for a U.S. air attack that killed 22 people at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
The White House announced Obama’s calls – first to the group’s president, Dr. Joanne Liu, and then to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – and promised that the Defense Department would conduct “a transparent, thorough and objective accounting” of the incident. Doctors Without Borders lost 12 staff members and 10 patients, including three children. Nearly 40 others were injured.
“When the United States makes a mistake, we own up to it, we apologize,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
That’s not exactly true, according to counterterrorism experts and human rights groups that keep tabs on civilian casualties in U.S. operations. There are only rare acknowledgments of civilian casualties and even rarer apologies, they said, and those typically are reserved for cases involving Westerners or that cause an international uproar, as with the Kunduz incident.
Doctors Without Borders, widely known as MSF for its acronym in French, is seeking a war crimes probe, saying that a review led by the Pentagon or NATO is insufficient. The group also criticized “the inconsistencies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts” of how a hospital whose location was known to combatants ended up as the target of a half-hour air raid. Witnesses said patients burned in their beds, and one doctor died while undergoing an emergency operation on his office desk.
We reiterate our ask that the U.S. government consent to an independent investigation.
Joanne Liu, Doctors Without Borders
“We received President Obama’s apology today for the attack against our trauma hospital in Afghanistan,” Liu said in a statement. “However, we reiterate our ask that the U.S. government consent to an independent investigation led by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to establish what happened in Kunduz, how it happened, and why it happened.”
At the State Department, spokesman John Kirby, formerly of the Pentagon, said the mistake in Kunduz was “devastating to everybody.”
“No other agency in the world, military or otherwise, investigates itself thoroughly and so publicly,” Kirby said of the U.S. military.
Long before Obama, experts say, presidents rarely apologized for unintended deaths from U.S. military operations, and there’s still no consistent way the White House handles the issue.
Sometimes, U.S. officials simply refuse to issue an apology or compensation, as in the case of U.S. citizen Abdulrahman al Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of al Qaida propagandist Anwar al Awlaki who U.S. officials acknowledged was killed by accident in a drone strike two weeks after his father died.
Other times, officials acknowledge errors and launch investigations, then just let the matter languish. It took the Los Angeles Times to uncover the 381 pages of findings after a Pentagon investigation into a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan that mistakenly killed a Marine and a Navy medic in April 2011. The report, which the Pentagon hadn’t released, showed that Marine commanders ordered a strike against the men, believing they were Taliban fighters, even though analysts watching the drone feed from a command center had doubts about the targets.
And then there are the rare apologies. The last big one was in April, when Obama apologized to the families of two captives of al Qaida – U.S. contractor Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto – who were killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in January.
And as for the scores of ordinary Yemenis, Iraqis, Afghans and others who are inadvertently killed?
There’s a conscious decision about not using the specific language of an apology because no commander in chief wants to tie the hands of future U.S. forces.
Micah Zenko, Council on Foreign Relations
“How many investigatory reports do you recall? Basically, it’s less than a handful,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on U.S. counterterrorism operations.
He recalled how it took just a couple high-profile incidents involving the German military, including one that killed 142 people in Kunduz, to lead to an overhaul of the Defense Ministry and sweeping changes to the way Germany conducts raids because “they were significantly ashamed and embarrassed.”
In the U.S. attack on Kunduz, however, Obama’s apology came four days after the raid and seemingly reluctantly. Before Wednesday’s announcement, the Obama administration had expressed condolences and vowed investigations but had stopped short of issuing an apology.
Zenko said apologies for the civilian casualties are seldom offered because such statements erode morale among troops and demand a policy response from Washington.
“There’s a conscious decision about not using the specific language of an apology because no commander in chief wants to tie the hands of future U.S. forces, and you assign a degree of culpability and responsibility to yourself,” Zenko said. “There’s going to be domestic political cost.”
While human rights advocates complain that Obama doesn’t apologize enough for battlefield errors, Republicans fault him for too many mea culpas. They accuse Obama of starting his tenure by conducting a global “apology tour.” In most of the contested remarks, made soon after he took office, Obama was acknowledging or criticizing particular U.S. actions, such as torture, but he did not offer apologies.
Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have twice issued apologies to foreign leaders before, including once to then Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the accidental burning of a Quran, Islam’s holy book, and another to Pakistan for the death of Pakistani troops who were killed in a U.S. air raid on their border post.
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.