The north-eastern province of Kunduz in Afghanistan, and it's capital by the same name, have shot to international attention this past week for two major reasons.
First, because the Taliban proved that despite fragmentation and leadership battles it's still able to gain strategic military momentum, exposing the weakness of the Afghan National Security Forces by taking the city (the Afghan Government now claims to have retaken it). Secondly, because the worst possible scenario occurred for the US military. Responding to a request from Afghan Government forces, US warplanes managed to bomb a hospital run by the renowned international humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), killing 22 people, patients and staff.
In many ways, it could not get much worse in Afghanistan. Or could it?
Let's start with the embarrassing mistake of targeting the one institution that is protected under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention – all medical facilities. Common Article 3 covers the most basic and fundamental rules of war 'from which no derogation is permitted' even in 'conflicts not of an international character'.
What happened in Kunduz unfortunately highlights the infringement on medical neutrality that has been happening in Afghanistan over the last few years, and which MSF highlighted in 2014 in various workshops and in a published report. Clinics have been raided and medical staff questioned numerous times by both national and international military (though the behaviour of the latter improved with time). It is a dangerous deterioration in a war where desperation prevails and any means seem justifiable or excusable.
MSF has already called for an investigation into what it is calling a war crime. The US military has of course complied, after suggesting early on it was merely a case of collateral damage. The Afghan Government seems less remorseful and some Afghan Government agencies seem to want to justify the bombing based on the fact that Afghan National Security forces (more specifically the Afghan police in Kunduz) claimed that Taliban fighters were firing from the hospital. MSF denies this.
But even if this had been the case, it would still be no excuse to bomb the hospital.
First, if there was Taliban in the hospital, this would have been an been an unlawful use of a hospital by an armed group. Secondly, international humanitarian law 'requires that even if military forces misuse a hospital to deploy able-bodied combatants or weapons, the attacking force must issue a warning to cease this misuse, setting a reasonable time limit for it to end, and attacking only after such a warning has gone unheeded.' Nobody has said that such an attempt was made and MSF claims the bombing continued after they told US authorities it was happening. Lastly, as Human Rights Watch points out, 'given the hospital's protected status and the large numbers of civilians and medical personnel in the facility, attacking the hospital would still likely have been an unlawfully disproportionate attack, causing greater harm to civilians and civilian structures than any immediate military gain.'
This sort of tragedy has happened before. On 4 September 2009 in the very same province a 'German-ordered attack' carried out by US fighter pilots on two fuel tankers alleged to have been hijacked by the Taliban resulted 'in the deaths of up to 142 people, many of them civilians'.
There must be something about Kunduz, and not just as a scene for tragic military mishaps. Contrary to some claims that Kunduz 'was not considered of particular strategic importance in the war against the Taliban', it might be wise to remember that the Taliban tried to move on Kunduz in 2007 and possibly as early as 2006 in Chahar Dara district, but failed due to the intervention of local militia and the Afghan Local Police. One should never forget that Kunduz was a key Taliban stronghold in the past ('the Kandahar of the north'), important for its efforts to capture northern Afghanistan, which nearly succeeded by 2001.
But this story is not just about Kunduz. It is about how the Afghan Government is slowly losing its grip, as one could have predicted. The Afghan National Security Forces were never strong enough without NATO air support, which was needed once again for Afghan Government forces to gain the upper hand in the latest battle for Kunduz. Over the last year the lack of air support has been felt in the war. The Taliban has able to move in larger groups, there has been more ground combat and as a result more civilians have been killed and displaced.
What happened in Kunduz is also a reminder of what happens when a war goes urban. Most of the past battles have been fought in rural areas, with less opportunity for collateral damage.
All this projects an ugly future in Afghanistan. If a city like Kunduz can fall, others could follow. The 1992-4 civil war that destroyed Kabul is a horrific reminder of how bad such urban warfare can get, especially when scores of internally displaced people have already pushed into Afghanistan's major cities. Civilian casualties would be far higher today than then.
So who can blame an increasing number of Afghans for once again leaving their country? They're not doing it undetected but they are being drowned out by the war in Syria. I'd rather not be smug and say 'I told you so', because to have predicted another mass displacement fills me with nothing but sadness.