Air strike on Kunduz hospital tests cosier Afghan - US ties

KABUL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's reticence since a suspected US air strike hit a hospital in the provincial capital of Kunduz on Saturday speaks volumes about how much he relies on Washington after 14 years of war.

The air strike, which killed 22 people at a clinic run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), fuelled Afghan anger over Ghani's close relationship with Washington, which contrasts sharply with the strained ties under his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

"I would like President Ghani to stand up and defend Afghan civil rights from all irresponsible actions taken by our forces or coalition forces," said Shukria Barakzai, a parliamentarian from Kabul. She said there was a void in national leadership.

Deputy presidential spokesman Sayed Zafar Hashemi said the US-Afghan relationship was "normal," adding: "We condemn any attack that causes harm to civilians ... But ... it's war and civilians were being used as shields inside the city."

The air strike, now under investigation, came five days after Taliban fighters captured Kunduz in a complex attack that exposed a lack of coordination between the branches of Afghan security, which are being trained by NATO.

They regained control of much of the city after three days of fighting and with the help of US air power. The battle showed how Afghan and US security interests remain intertwined nearly a year after NATO's combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended.

ASSESSING THE US FORCE

The United States has nearly 10,000 troops in the country and the current plan is for only a few hundred troops to remain after the end of 2016.

For some months, US President Barack Obama has been reassessing the time table for the draw-down and was given five different recommendations by General John Campbell, commander of international forces in Afghanistan.

One of Campbell's options was to keep a force of 5,000 there into 2017, said one US official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Obama has already slowed the pace of America's withdrawal, to avoid the kind of collapse of local security forces that occurred in Iraq after the US pullout there.

"The president wants to look at the longer-term trajectory of our presence in Afghanistan," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, although he said there was no timeline for a decision.

Even before the Kunduz hospital was hit, Ghani had faced calls in parliament to step down over the failure of the army and police to hold Kunduz, the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since their ouster in 2001.

While lawmakers are unable to remove him easily, they have made life difficult by opposing cabinet nominees and leaving key ministries, including defence, rudderless for months as the Taliban insurgency gained in strength.

PRESSURE ON GHANI

If investigations conclude that a US aircraft did fire on the MSF compound, pressure will grow on Ghani to hold the coalition to account.

At a makeshift camp in Kabul where some residents had fled, people vented their anger over what had happened in Kunduz.

"Ghani was installed by the Americans," said Mohammad Yasin. "How could he condemn the (hospital) attack?"

In his response on Saturday Ghani avoided assigning blame and was neutral in tone, saying Campbell had "provided explanations about the incident".

Karzai had steered Kabul away from Washington and was highly critical of the coalition when civilian lives were lost during military operations.

"Karzai would call NATO or US ambassadors to the palace if foreign troops caused civilian casualties, but Ghani did not even dare to condemn the attack on MSF," said an Afghan official close to security agencies, speaking on condition of anonymity.

NO ALTERNATIVE

For all the pressure to review Afghan-US relations, senior Afghan government officials say that until local security forces can prove themselves in battle there is no alternative to NATO.

The bulk of NATO troops withdrew as the combat mission in Afghanistan formally concluded at the end of last year.

But the "Resolute Support" mission remains to train Afghan forces and offer battlefield support, including engaging the enemy if it comes under direct attack as happened in Kunduz.

"It's pretty obvious that the enemy understood 2015 was a critical year to test the Afghan army and to test the (Afghan-coalition) partnership," said Omar Samad, a senior adviser to Abdullah.