At Just Security the debate over the US air strike on the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz (see here and here) rumbles on, specifically around whether acknowledged violations of international humanitarian law (‘the laws of war’) constitute war crimes (see my previous post here). The latest contribution is from Adil Ahmad Haque and it is extremely helpful.
But I’m struck by its title: ‘What the Kunduz report gets right (and wrong).‘ I’ve now read the report several times, and am working on my own commentary: but it turns out to be extremely difficult to know what the report gets right or wrong.
I say this having read multiple Investigation Reports, known collectively as Army Regulation 15-6 Reports, into civilian casualties caused by US military action. They vary enormously in quality – the scope of the questions and the depth of the analysis – and in what has been released for public inspection. Of all those that I have read, the report into the Uruzgan air strike in February 2010 that I discuss in ‘Angry Eyes‘ (here and here; more to come) now seems a model to me (see also here).
It’s redacted, but it includes real-time transcripts of radio communications between the aircrews and the ground force commander through his Joint Terminal Attack Controller, and after action transcripts of (sometimes highly combative) interviews with the principals involved. In Kill-chain, Andrew Cockburn reports that the first act of the Investigating Officer, Major-General Timothy McHale, was to fly to the hospital where the wounded were being treated, and six weeks later he and his team had created ‘a hand-drawn time-line of the events that ultimately stretched for sixty-six feet around the four walls of the hangar he had commandeered for his office.’
This is very different from the unclassified version of the report into the Kunduz incident. The investigation was headed by Major-General William Hickman, with two Assistant Investigating Officers – Brigadier-General Sean Jenkins and Brigadier-General Robert Armfield – supported by an unidentified Legal Advisor and five unidentified subject matter specialists in Special Operations; Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance; AC-130 Aircrew Operations (this was the gunship that carried out the attack); Joint Targeting; and JTAC Operations.
The final report with its annexes reportedly runs to 3,000 pages, but the released version is much slimmer. It has been redacted with a remarkably heavy hand. I understand why names have been redacted – they were in the Uruzgan case too – but to remove all direct indications of rank or role from the various statements makes interpretation needlessly burdensome.
Some redactions seem to have been made not for reasons of security or privacy but to save embarrassment. For example: from contextual evidence I suspect that several references to ‘MAMs’ or ‘military-aged males’ – a term that was supposedly removed from US military vocabulary – have been excised, but some have escaped the blunt red pencil. On page after page even the time of an event has been removed: this is truly bizarre, since elsewhere the report is fastidious in fixing times and, notably, insists that the aircraft fired on the Trauma Center for precisely ‘30 minutes and 8 seconds’. The timeline matters and is central to any proper accounting for what happened: why suppress it?
Again in stark contrast to the Uruzgan report, the public version of the Kunduz report includes remarkably few transcriptions of the ‘extensive interviews’ its authors conducted with US and Afghan personnel or with MSF officials – too often just terse memoranda summarising them.
The AC-130 video has been withheld from public scrutiny – this was done in the Uruzgan case too – but, apart from a few selected extracts, the audio transcripts that were central to the Uruzgan case have been omitted from this one as well: and they are no less vital here.
Even if we bracket understandable concerns about the US military investigating itself, how can the public have any confidence in a report where so much vital information has been excluded? If the military is to be accountable to the public that it serves and the people amongst whom (and for whom) it fights, then its accounts of incidents like this need to be as full and open as security and privacy allow. Otherwise we pass into an Alice-in-Wonderland world where the Freedom of Information Act becomes a Freedom of Redaction Act.
As you’ll see, I’ll have more questions about the substance of the report when I complete my commentary.