AC-130H Howitzer. Flickr/US Air Force. Some rights reserved.The United States air-force's assault on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan on 3 October 2015 is reported to have killed twenty-two people and injured thirty-seven, with twelve staff of the aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders / MSF) among the dead. Whatever investigators discover about the exact details, the implications of the "tragic incident" (as President Obama described it) go wider than can be explained away by any technical or military error. They relate not just to recent developments in Afghanistan, but also to the evolving war in Iraq and Syria.
For a start, the attack shows how an accurate targeting-system, which is supposed to avoid civilian casualties (“collateral damage”), is dependent on the target being correctly identified. The plane used in the Kunduz hospital operation was a variant of the AC-130 gunship, itself based on the workhorse C-130 Hercules military transport that was in use during the Vietnam war. It operates by circling a target slowly at low altitude and firing its weapons sideways, aiming to be highly accurate while maintaining a sustained attack.
The plane fires 25mm and 40mm cannon and a much more powerful 105mm howitzer, the latter releasing explosive shells. Avoiding high-explosive bombs, intended to allow the steady and systematic destruction of the target, helps explain why the hospital walls were left standing. The MSF trauma centre was under attack for an hour or more with considerable precision; neighbouring buildings were scarcely touched.
The AC-130 has been used many times in Afghanistan and Iraq. An instance in Iraq in 2004 acquired some notoriety when a reprisal raid following an ambush of a US marines unit resulted in the destruction of six blocks of the city of Fallujah. No information was forthcoming as to civilian casualties (see "Between Fallujah and Palestine", 22 April 2004).
Such issues of civilians killed or wounded by military action are also relevant to what is now happening in Syria, even more in light of repeated claims from western military and political sources that Russian strikes are taking many civilian lives. This is said to contrast with the results of the many thousands of coalition airstrikes conducted since August 2014, which are said to have taken the lives of some 15,000 ISIS supporters - but not of civilians to any measurable extent. The western claims, however, require a suspension of belief, not least as ISIS makes great play in its vast social-media output of repeated civilian casualties.
Evasion, London style
The relevance of the issue extends to the United Kingdom, and the evolving debate over whether to bomb targets in Syria. An underlying theme here is that if Britain does so decide then its actions will be precise, quite unlike Russia's. A clear signal to this effect comes from the ministry of defence, which otherwise rarely talks about casualties at all.
A revealing illustration is the answer provided by the secretary of state for defence Michael Fallon to a question from Caroline Lucas, the sole Green Party MP, which asked what estimate had been made of "the number of ISIL fighters killed as a result of UK strike activity; and what estimate the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL has made of civilian casualties arising from its activities". Fallon's figure was reported in the media but the full written response, submitted on 16 September 2015, is significant in another way:
“The estimated number of ISIL fighters killed as a result of UK strikes from September 2014 to 31 August 2015 is around 330. The figure is highly approximate, not least given the absence of UK ground troops in a position to observe the effects of strike activity. We do not believe there have been any civilian casualties as a result of UK strike activity."
The problem here is that a “highly approximate” figure for paramilitary casualties is combined with a simultaneous claim that UK attacks have inflicted no civilian casualties. The two points are, to put it kindly, contradictory.
In the greater scheme of things it may not matter. But much of the argument being made for extending the air-war is that it is a precise endeavour: yet the lack of objective evidence available directly on the ground makes this impossible to justify, especially as the Kunduz hospital incident is a stark reminder of probable outcomes.
Blowback, Moscow style
In fact the air-war is already being intensified. The United States is now able to make extensive use of bases in Turkey. France and Australia are joining in, while Britain is likely to do so. And Russia's own involvement complicates just about everything.
But turn the whole thing round and see it from the perspective of the ISIS leadership. Its consistent message, that the movement is the true protector of an Islam under "crusader" attack, is bound to receive a considerable boost.
Furthermore, the Israeli-Russian dialogue reinforces the ISIS narrative of a “Crusader-Zionist” axis, and much of the propaganda over the coming weeks will be directed at potential recruits in all four countries. Indeed, the attention that will be paid to Russia is likely to be intense, with the country's 16 million-plus Muslim population a target for propaganda.
The ISIS planners are particularly keen to build up their existing links with extreme Islamists in the Caucasus, and the turn of events in Syria gives them a chance. Any prediction is risky but it will be very surprising if there isn’t a major domestic attack in Russia, most probably in Moscow, during the coming winter.
Vladimir Putin is riding high, having put himself and Russia once more at centre-stage and seriously annoying Washington. It is a stance which may give short-term satisfaction but it is also one he may come to regret.