The deadly Oct. 3 U.S. airstrike on a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, came just days before the 14th anniversary of a brutal and unnecessary war. It was a grimly fitting marker of how almost nothing has changed since 2001.
An outrageously bold Taliban offensive on the northern province was the impetus for this latest U.S. action in support of Afghan forces. The Taliban has traditionally controlled the southern provinces of the country, in and around Kandahar. By moving north into government-held territory (that it was unable to control even at its peak in 2001), the fundamentalist group was flaunting the fact that nearly a decade and a half of war had only served to strengthen it. In fact, the brief capture of Kunduz in late September was the first time the Taliban had retaken a major Afghan city since the start of the war.
The barrage of U.S. bombs aimed at the hospital reportedly lasted more than 30 minutes, killing 22 people, including aid workers and patients, three of whom were children. The U.S. initially claimed the strike was an accident. Then, it insisted that it was responding to U.S. troops being fired on. And now, after MSF loudly denounced the attack and any claims that their hospital housed Taliban fighters, the U.S. has changed its story once more saying that it was fulfilling the request of its Afghan allies who were the ones apparently fired upon.
A spokesperson for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) fighting on the ground told The Guardian newspaper, "The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility." But MSF has angrily denounced it as a war crime and said that, "relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient." They are right – the U.S. has never held itself accountable over civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
This is the second time that MSF's Afghan operations have been attacked. The venerable global aid organization had provided aid for 25 years before it withdrew in 2004 when five of its workers were murdered. No one was ever held accountable for that crime but the message was clear: aid workers were not safe under U.S. occupation in Afghanistan. Then, five years later the group reentered Afghanistan, a nation that remains among the poorest and most deprived in the world. The organization is aghast at this new attack, directly at the hands of U.S. forces.
But really, we should not be surprised in the least. This long war that the U.S. has waged has followed several patterns – hallmarks of its failures. It has backed criminal and corrupt warlords, among them murderers and drug lords. It has relied on the flawed intelligence of those allies, who often use U.S. firepower to settle scores. It has "accidentally" bombed weddings and civilian convoys, and then dismissed human casualties as "collateral damage," angering ordinary Afghans and aid workers. It has effectively overseen the rise of the heroin trade, as Afghanistan once became the number one global supplier of the drug. And it has refused to take responsibility for the death and destruction it has fomented.
Despite its deep impact on ordinary Afghans, the war has simply been a useful political tool for presidents, rather than a necessity. After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush was so eager to enter Iraq that it took his administration several days to realize they would have to start in Afghanistan because of al-Qaida's obvious presence there. They needed time to circulate the propaganda that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction" before entering that country.
Then, Barack Obama ran for president on the promise to end the unpopular Iraq war and instead expanded the war most Americans forgot about in Afghanistan. After all, it is helpful for a candidate to appear "tough on terrorism." He kept that first promise. Years later, after his second election, he broke his 2014 pledge to draw down U.S. forces, perhaps realizing that our troops would be leaving Afghanistan almost as badly as we found it, if not worse, with several hundred thousand people dead to boot.
War hawks and liberals alike wring their hands over the prospect of Afghanistan falling into chaos and violence if U.S. troops withdraw. But, they have not accounted for how much destruction the presence of U.S. troops has actually brought. To most ordinary Afghans caught in the decades-long crossfire, things can't get any worse.
Now, that war drags on unendingly, as Obama plans to keep 5,000 troops in the country past the end of his tenure. In fact, former U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins told the Washington Post that the administration is simply looking for some sort of "acceptable equilibrium, some minimal level of involvement, that avoids catastrophic reversals."
So that's where we have ended up, 14 years after we began the war of revenge for 9/11: "acceptable equilibrium." What that means for ordinary Afghans is obvious – that the U.S. has fought this war with little regard for Afghan suffering, and plans to continue in just such a devastating steady state.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio. She is also the Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports women's rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence."