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28 August 2009

Why are we bombing clinics?

The wrong way to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan

By Mehdi Hasan

This magazine has called for the government to set a date for withdrawal of British troops from Helmand, and has questioned whether the Afghan conflict is “winnable”.

But supporters of the war point to polls which suggest that most ordinary Afghans still welcome our military presence even though, eight years into the fighting, “the danger and insecurity facing millions of Afghans continues and in fact is higher now than ever”.

Counter-insurgency experts also wax lyrical about the need to win hearts and minds, but I wonder how we’ll pull that off while coalition forces continue to bomb civilian targets and destroy Afghanistan’s already crumbling infrastructure. Here is a report from yesterday’s Toronto Globe and Mail of how US and Afghan forces, backed by a US Apache helicopter, targeted a medical clinic in Paktika Province for attack:

US and Afghan forces attacked a clinic in eastern Afghanistan after a wounded Taliban commander sought treatment, and a US helicopter gunship fired on the medical centre after militants put up resistance, officials said Thursday.

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Reports of the militant death toll from Wednesday’s firefight varied widely. The spokesman for the governor of Paktika Province said 12 militants died, while police said two were killed. The US military did not report any deaths. It wasn’t clear why the tolls differed.

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A US military statement claimed that the medical centre “was cleared of civilians” but, whether or not that statement turns out to be true (and countless other such statements have later turned out not to be worth the paper they were written on), this misses the point. To bomb a clinic or hospital is a de facto war crime, even if wounded militants have sought shelter there: in such a scenario, the clinic or hospital does not lose “its protected status”, to quote the absurd formulation of words employed by a Nato spokesperson.

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, Sam Zarifi, agrees with me:

“If the Taliban used the clinic as a shelter to fire from, they’ve committed a serious violation,” said Zarifi.

But if they were using the clinic for health care, Nato forces had no business firing on the clinic, even if they had cleared out civilians from the facility.

The bottom line in this incident is that another clinic in Afghanistan is now not working — a tragedy for a country that already suffers from horrifically low rates of access to health care.

Whether the Taliban or Nato or both have violated the laws of war, it is Afghan civilians who pay the price.

It is a rather obvious point that seems lost on our political and military leaders, not to mention the armchair generals of the British commentariat.