Will probe of “executions" at Afghan clinic bring justice?

Past investigations have done little or nothing

By Jared Ferrie
Asia Editor

Both Afghanistan's government and NATO are investigating an Afghan special forces raid on a clinic in which three people were said to have been executed, including a teenage boy. But Afghanistan and NATO have a history of impunity in such cases, casting doubt on whether the investigations will reveal the truth and bring accountability. 

Just before midnight on 17 February, Afghan forces, allegedly backed by foreign soldiers, raided a clinic run by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in Wardak Province. Bjorn Lindh, a spokesman for SCA, told IRIN that soldiers accused the clinic’s staff of treating Taliban fighters.

“After the manager of the facility was tied up and other medical personnel forced with him into a room, two patients and a 15-year-old boy on visit were taken to a nearby shop and summarily executed,” the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a statement Tuesday.

The NATO mission initially denied foreign involvement in the operation, saying on 18 February that it had “no operational reporting of any coalition or US activity in the vicinity of any hospitals in Wardak".  

The UNAMA statement, however, confirmed the presence of “international military”, backing up reports by SCA staff. The SCA said its employees saw at least two soldiers wearing foreign uniforms “who spoke in a language that sounded like English”. 

The NATO mission, known as Resolute Support, told IRIN that it still could not confirm the presence of international military, and said it had assigned its Joint Casualty Assessment Team to look into the incident.

“The Afghan government is conducting an investigation,” Colonel Michael Lawhorn said in an emailed statement. “Additionally, RS is conducting a preliminary inquiry, to determine whether there are any credible allegations of civilian casualties.”

Lindh told IRIN that SCA is “not satisfied” with the response and wants an independent investigation. It is preparing a formal complaint to the Afghan government and NATO, and will ask the Swedish government to apply diplomatic pressure on Afghanistan to ensure that the incident does not get swept under the rug. 

“We are well aware that very little has happened (after past incidents),” he told IRIN. “But we hope we will be able to put pressure that will make something happen.”

The history of such investigations over the past 14 years since the US invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban does not bode well for the possibility of justice and accountability this time around. The American military has investigated and prosecuted only a handful of its soldiers.

“It’s unfortunately quite rare that incidents in which international forces are implicated in extrajudicial killings or other abuses against civilians are properly investigated,” said Patti Gossman, a senior researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch.

“Afghan officials also do a very poor job investigating such incidents by their own forces,” she told IRIN. “To our knowledge, no Afghan military personnel have been held accountable for serious abuses.”

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior, which oversees the special forces, was not available by phone and did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Lindh said his staff didnt know why the two patients and the boy were taken from the clinic and executed. But they have an indication of why the SCA clinic was targeted.

“The staff was treated in a harsh way; some of them beaten,” he said. “Soldiers accused them of giving care to the Taliban.”

Under international law, it is illegal to target healthcare facilities regardless of the affiliation of patients they are treating. However, hospitals and clinics have increasingly come under attack by both pro-government forces and insurgent groups according to UNAMA.

In its 2015 annual report released earlier this month, UNAMA noted “an increase in the number of conflict-related incidents deliberately targeting hospitals, clinics and health personnel, including searches by Afghan special forces supported by international military forces on clinics”.

In at least one instance last year, destruction rained down on a health facility from the air. As pro-government forces were fighting in October to push the Taliban out of the provincial capital of Kunduz, which they had occupied, a US airstrike hit a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontiers. Patients as well as staff were among the 42 killed and 43 injured.

Afghan and American officials made contradictory statements in the aftermath of the attack, with the US military finally determining that human error was at fault. But UNMISS was not satisfied with the explanation and in its annual report demanded an “independent, impartial, transparent and effective investigation”.

SEE: Aid agencies withdraw from Afghanistan’s north 

Groups such as the Taliban and Daesh, as the so-called Islamic State is known in Afghanistan, also carried out numerous attacks on clinics throughout 2015.

“UNAMA also documented increased intimidation and threats against healthcare staff and institutions by Anti-Government Elements,” said the report.

Overall, there were more civilian casualties last year than in any since UNAMA began keeping records in 2009, with anti-government groups responsible for 62 percent of the record 11,002 Afghans killed or injured.