- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 8, 2015

Doctors Without Borders is saying no thanks to a Pentagon offer to pay for rebuilding its trauma center destroyed by a U.S. AC-130 gunship on Oct. 3, killing 30 patients and staff.

A group spokeswoman told The Washington Times on Sunday that the nonprofit, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), has made it a practice not to accept government money in Afghanistan and will continue that policy.

Doctors Without Borders’ general director, Christopher Stokes, last week all but accused the U.S. of deliberately targeting the hospital, based on the fact that it repeatedly made the Pentagon, the NATO command in Kabul and the Afghan government aware that it was operating a hospital in Kunduz’s mean streets. The American commander in Kabul has called the strike a “mistake.”

“All the information that we provided so far shows that a mistake is quite hard to understand and believe at this stage,” Mr. Stokes said.

The U.S. military continues to investigate the assault, which happened amid a fierce battle for control of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Much of the post-tragedy debate has centered on the number of Taliban patients inside the hospital and whether any of them used it as a base of operations.

Doctors Without Borders released its own findings last week categorically denying that any combatant, the Taliban or the government’s, was armed inside the compound.

On at least two occasions, Pentagon representatives have reached out to Doctors Without Borders with a promise to pay for rebuilding.

Last month, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said that, under a flexible cash account known as the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan “has the authority to make condolence payments and payments toward repair of the hospital. USFOR-A will work with those affected to determine appropriate payments.”

He said the Pentagon also can ask Congress to authorize funding.

After receiving the Doctors Without Borders report last week, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, director of Pentagon press operations, said: “We continue to work closely with MSF in identifying the victims, both those killed and wounded, so that we can conclude our investigations and proceed with follow-on actions to include condolence payments. We are also committed to working with MSF to determine the full extent of the damage to the hospital, so that it can be repaired in full.”

But Doctors Without Borders representatives said that to accept Pentagon money would jeopardize the humanitarian group’s independence and neutrality.

Asked about the funding offer, Tim Shenk, a Doctors Without Borders spokesman, said: “Regarding the Department of Defense statement on funding, our stated policy is to not accept money from belligerents in conflict settings, which include the U.S. in Afghanistan.”

Sandra Murillo, a Doctors Without Borders spokeswoman in New York, said: “MSF’s long-standing policy is to not accept funding from any governments for its work in Afghanistan and other conflicts around the world. This policy allows us to work independently without taking sides and provide medical care to anyone who needs it. This will not change.”

Asked whether Doctors Without Borders will rebuild at the Kunduz site, Ms. Murillo said, “Until we understand what happened and we have some assurances that this unacceptable attack cannot happen again, we cannot reopen our Kunduz Trauma Center and put our staff in danger.”

The group’s motto is “Medical aid where it is needed most. Independent. Neutral. Impartial.”

In fact, Doctors Without Borders USA points out that it has not taken or solicited funds from the U.S. government since 2002. Other Doctors Without Borders units have accepted donations from other unspecified foreign governments, amounting to 20 percent of total spending.

The USA branch said, for example, that it collected $264 million in 2010. All came from private sources that included individuals, foundations and corporations. It will not take money from any firm involved in oil or gas drilling or the manufacture of firearms.

Critical questions remain

The hospital was caring for 105 patients at about 2 a.m. on Oct. 3, when the U.S. gunship opened fire with canon and machine gun. Before-and-after satellite photos show the trauma center building was surgically struck to the point of destruction while other buildings remained largely unscathed.

The patient list included 20 Taliban fighters, two of whom had senior rank, and five opposing government forces. Mr. Shenk, the Doctors Without Borders spokesman, said this arrangement, putting enemies inside the same hospital, is normal for the organization’s operations in war.

“This is how we’ve worked in conflict zones throughout the world for decades, treating people from all sides and people who identify with no side, all on the basis of need,” Mr. Shenk said. “In addition to Afghanistan, it would currently be true to say this is how we’re working in the war in Yemen, among other places.”

Mr. Stokes told the Kabul press conference that combatants must be wounded to receive treatment. Their guns are confiscated at the entrance, he said, meaning there is no way gunfire could have originated from the compound.

“From all MSF accounts, there was no shooting from or around the Trauma Centre and the compound was in full MSF control with our rules and procedures fully respected,” the Doctors Without Borders report said.

“MSF doctors and other medical staff were shot while running to reach safety in a different part of the compound. Other MSF staff describe seeing people running while on fire and then falling unconscious on the ground,” the report said. “One MSF staff was decapitated by shrapnel in the airstrikes. Not a single MSF staff member reported the presence of armed combatants or fighting in or from the hospital compound prior to or during the airstrikes.”

U.S. officials have said that Afghan fighters requested the strike on the hospital after reporting that they were taking fire. Some Afghan officials said the hospital was a Taliban base — an assertion Mr. Stokes said was baseless.

Taliban forces invaded and captured Kunduz in late September, triggering a counteroffensive that involved a contingency of U.S. Green Berets advising Afghan forces and the AC-130 gunship.

The U.S. command has yet to release any details from its investigation. Not known are answers to critical questions, such as who in the joint operations center approved the strike, what effort went into analyzing the target once the AC-130 radioed that the Afghans were requesting the strike and how the compound appeared to the AC-130 crew equipped with sophisticated night-vision gear.

The Doctors Without Borders report said its flag was affixed to the roof horizontally.

It said staff went to great lengths to tell all sides it had been operating a hospital in Kunduz since 2011, even to the point of conveying the GPS coordinates to the Pentagon, the NATO command in Kabul and the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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