Sawhney and Stratton: Reflecting on the implications of the Kunduz air strike

Asha Sawhney and Abigail Stratton

On Oct. 3, a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, was bombed, killing 12 staff members, 10 patients and wounding an additional 37. The search continues for more than 20 missing staff members. The U.S. government has switched its narrative of the attack a total of four times. Initially the attack was deemed as possible collateral damage, then dubbed an accident, then blamed on Afghan forces, until the current admission that although Afghan forces requested the strike, the final decision was made by U.S. officials. Gen. John Campbell, the most senior commander in Afghanistan, says that it is likely these officials “did not follow their own rules” in ordering the strike.

Both U.S. officials and Afghan forces claim the Taliban, which had taken control of the city a week earlier, were using the hospital as a human shield. However, Afghan forces had retaken control of the city days prior. Both Doctors Without Borders and the Taliban, a group that normally is quick to claim terror attacks, state there were no terrorists on the premises. Doctors Without Borders intends to employ a never-used mechanism of the Geneva Convention to launch a fact-finding mission into whether or not the U.S. has committed a war crime. Unfortunately for Doctors Without Borders, starting this investigation would require the endorsement of both the U.S. and Afghanistan, and both have shown an unwillingness to do so. Due to its compromised position in the region, Doctors Without Borders has said it will vacate Kunduz, leaving tens of thousands of people without adequate medical care.

On a personal and institutional level, most people can agree that medical care is a human right and that civilians seeking care at a hospital should not be the target of war. However, we still see civilians in schools, hospitals and their homes killed by drones on a daily basis. Why does the United States continue to engage in this violence? How did we develop a narrative that allows human life to be reduced to “collateral damage”?

On a more immediate level, many of the volunteers who provide services in conflict zones are young, and often recent college graduates. As the danger of working in conflict zones increases, should we more closely examine who we send to these areas? How can Northwestern students who want to get services to those who need them most get involved in a meaningful way?

Sawhney: Is a human shield a fair justification?

Although U.S. military forces surely recognize that killing civilians, even in times of war, is wrong, they still employ the term “human shield” as a justification for doing just that in Kunduz. This term proves we let the Islamophobia endemic in our culture guide our Middle Eastern policy.

There are only certain people who run the risk of becoming a “human shield.” For example, when a shooter walks into a school in America, the strategy is always to disarm the shooter and prevent further harm to innocent citizens at all costs. There is never a question of whether or not to bomb the whole school to prevent the shooter from continuing to attack.

Most people would find this thought absurd and these examples incomparable, and I would challenge them to question why that is. The fact is the United States has invested in a stereotype of the Middle East being a dangerous place that compromises the character of every person we forcefully place into this category. This thinking is most pronounced in CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programs. The U.S. government lists a variety of behaviors which may signal a young Muslim is in danger of being radicalized. Meeting in coffee shops, praying more frequently or quitting smoking are all on this list. I would dare to say that these behaviors would never be considered dangerous if a white Christian engaged in them. In fact, quitting smoking is usually an applauded lifestyle change. We have constructed a narrative in which it takes very little for a Muslim to go from an innocent civilian to a terrorist. On this campus, I watched as a moderator for a Kellogg entrepreneurship conference ask a young Afghan businessman how he avoided being recruited by extremists. The Afghan man sat there stunned at the thought that it would have been that easy for him to become a murderer.

So how does this connect to Kunduz? U.S. foreign policy has effectively decided any person living in the Middle East has the potential to be dangerous. When the United States bombs a hospital, the underlying justification is that patients and terrorists alike pose a danger, and therefore it’s a good thing we took care of it all at once. This is not mere speculation: In Pakistan and Afghanistan, any men between the age of 20 and 40 are valid targets for a U.S. drone strike. Additionally, young men aren’t the only ones affected by this thinking. Prioritizing our fears that terrorists will claim refugee status over these refugees’ basic human needs has hopelessly backlogged American asylum interviews for women and children.

The bottom line is that Islamophobia guides large parts of our Middle Eastern policy. As long as we let it blur the line between civilian and terrorist, I have little faith that any American intervention in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen or beyond will have a positive impact.

Stratton: The attack’s impact on sending students to conflict zones

Doctors Without Borders is supposed to be a neutral and safe organization for people to go to when they are in need of medical attention. Unfortunately, that may not be the case anymore. On Northwestern’s campus, Doctors Without Borders has an important presence for many students. It has worked with the Global Health Program, Phi Delta Epsilon and MEDLIFE. Many students consider Doctors Without Borders a favorable option for medical internships and professional medical placements. Just today, I received an email from Northwestern Career Services promoting an information session for Doctors Without Borders on Oct. 20. This session is advertised under “Careers in Nonprofit, Government & Policy.”

Despite the risk involved in working with Doctors Without Borders, many students choose to make the personal sacrifice to work in a conflict zone to provide relief. Their sacrifice is admirable, as is the desire to put oneself at risk in order to help others. MSF provides relief for populations that desperately need it. The hospital affected by the bombing in Kunduz was the only of its kind in the northeastern region of Afghanistan, and the surrounding population will almost certainly suffer in the wake of this attack.

In addition to the danger inherent in participating in a program of this nature, students must wonder whether they can make a real, positive difference. Doctors Without Borders offers programs for high school students all the way up to medical retirees. But how much of an impact will a high school student really make? How much will a college undergrad make? Granted, most younger participants are not going to war zones like Kunduz, but they still participate in the running of hospitals without necessarily having any prior experience.

Michael Miller (Weinberg ’15) participated in a clinical training program aiding the Ministry of Health in South Sudan that undergoes similar efforts. His perspective on the experience is not remarkably positive, reflecting, “As a 20-year-old attempting to work in a conflict area, I learned quickly that I had no business being there. I believe we can all get sucked into this romanticized idea of helping in the most dangerous places with the greatest need, but the reality is that at our age, we cannot yet provide the quality of services that people deserve.” This is something to consider, especially now that there may be a decline of students willing to risk their own well-being now that the United States has performed air strikes. Even so, if, as a student, you are not qualified to administer medical aid in the United States, are you qualified to do it in a conflict area or at a hospital in a third-world country with limited resources?

I do not have the answer to that question. Despite an observed struggle to make a difference as an undergraduate struggle, I still believe that Doctors Without Borders is a productive organization, one that provides necessary services to populations like the people of Kunduz. My concern is how this bombing will affect the organization as a whole, especially since the program recruits at NU. Hopefully it will continue to do good and productive work and not become a victim of more casualties after this tragedy. NU students have innumerable skills than can make a real impact abroad; I encourage students to look into Doctors Without Borders, but for those who are not prepared to encounter those risks, there are plenty of other ways they can make a difference.

Asha Sawhney is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at[email protected]. Abigail Stratton is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.