Air strike on Kunduz hospital tests cosier Afghan-US ties

The air strike in Kunduz that killed 22 staff & patients at an MSF clinic has fuelled Afghan anger.

In this undated photograph released by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) on 3 October, 2015, Afghan MSF medical personnel treat civilians injured following an offensive against Taliban militants by Afghan and coalition forces at the MSF hospital in Kunduz. Picture: AFP.

KABUL - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's reticence since a suspected US air strike hit a hospital in northern Afghanistan on Saturday speaks volumes about how much he relies on Washington after 14 years of war.

The air strike in Kunduz that killed 22 staff and patients at a clinic run by the medical aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has fuelled Afghan anger over Ghani's close relationship with Washington, which stands in sharp contrast to the strained ties seen under his predecessor Hamid Karzai.

"I would like President Ghani to stand up and defend Afghan civil rights from all irresponsible actions taken by our forces or coalition forces," said Shukria Barakzai, a parliamentarian from Kabul.

"I am proud of our brave forces. But politically, the void left by the national leadership is wide and visible," she added.

Deputy presidential spokesman Sayed Zafar Hashemi said the US-Afghan relationship was "normal", adding: "We condemn any attack that causes harm to civilians ... But ... it's war and civilians were being used as shields inside the city."

The air strike, now under investigation, came five days after Taliban fighters captured Kunduz in a complex attack that exposed a worrying lack of coordination between the branches of Afghan security, who are being trained by Nato.

They regained control of much of the city after three days of fighting and with the help of US air power, in a battle that underlined how Afghan and US security interests remain intertwined nearly a year after Nato's combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended.

"DEEP DISSATISFACTION"

Even before the hospital was hit, Ghani had faced calls in parliament to step down over the failure of the army and police to hold Kunduz, the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since their ouster in 2001.

While lawmakers are unable to remove him easily, they have made life difficult by opposing cabinet nominees and leaving key ministries, including defence, rudderless for months as the Taliban insurgency gains in strength.

If investigations which Nato said could be completed within days conclude that a U.S. aircraft did fire on the MSF compound, pressure will grow on Ghani to hold the coalition to account.

At a makeshift camp in Kabul where some residents of Kunduz have fled, people vented their anger over what had happened this week in their hometown.

"Ghani was installed by the Americans," said Mohammad Yasin.

"How could he condemn the attack?"

Ghani's response on Saturday avoided pointing the finger of blame and was neutral in tone, saying US General John Campbell, in charge of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, had spoken to the president and "provided explanations about the incident".

Karzai had steered Kabul away from Washington and was highly critical of the coalition when civilian lives were lost during military operations.

"Karzai would call Nato or US ambassadors to the palace if foreign troops caused civilian casualties, but Ghani did not even dare to condemn the attack on MSF," said an Afghan official close to security agencies, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He referred to Campbell as "more of a commander-in-chief", echoing a view held by some in Afghanistan that the general has too much sway over military strategy.

Campbell would "definitely reject" such a characterization, said Lieutenant Colonel Angela Funaro, Campbell's public affairs officer.

"He advises President Ghani and Chief Executive (Abdullah) Abdullah on military matters, but that's his role," she said, adding he was the commander of the US and Nato forces here.

"FOG OF WAR"

For all the pressure to review Afghan-USrelations, senior government officials argue that, until local security forces can prove themselves in battle, there is no alternative to Nato.

The bulk of Nato troops withdrew as the combat mission in Afghanistan formally concluded at the end of last year.

But a "Resolute Support" mission of around 13,000 soldiers remains to train Afghan forces and offer battlefield support, including engaging the enemy if it comes under direct attack as happened in Kunduz last week.

"It's pretty obvious that the enemy understood 2015 was a critical year to test the Afghan army and to test the (Afghan-coalition) partnership," said Omar Samad, a senior adviser to Abdullah.

"We need to make sure this partnership is solid and that Afghan forces are moving toward self-reliance."

In Washington, the air strike, even while under investigation, has raised fresh criticism from those who think the United States is leaving Afghanistan too quickly.

President Barack Obama has said that by the end of 2015 the US military presence in Afghanistan would be roughly half the current total of 10,000 and would operate only from bases in Kabul and Bagram, a key airstrip near the capital.

The plan is to reduce the force to "normal embassy presence" by the end of 2016, mainly protecting the embassy and other U.S. interests.

Senator John McCain told CNN on Sunday that the air strike could have been prevented if the United States had a greater military presence in Afghanistan, calling the strike part of the "fog of war".