3 years, 4 months ago
By now it isn’t news that Wikileaks has leaked tens of thousands of war records in what they call the Afghanistan War Diary. It consists of a catalog of thousands of daily incident reports (each incident of an IED, contact with the enemy, casualties, etc., is summarized in an incident report). The reports make for a choppy and stilted read, but for those who are willing to endure it, there is information here and there that compromises operational security. Joshua Foust points out that the names of certain collaborators are in these reports, but that likely doesn’t matter to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. All of the information is classified and it should not have been released.
But it has been, and having spent some time now examining these reports, there are a few things that can be gleaned from them concerning specific operations and engagements. For example, C. J. Chivers adds to the context concerning the battle for Combat Outpost Keating in the Kamdesh District of the Nuristan province. I went immediately to the incident report for the Battle of Wanat, and I will be making some observations concerning this engagement based on the incident report from Wikileaks. Neither Chivers’ observations nor mine (forthcoming on Wanat) fundamentally changes what I know or think about the campaign.
There is more, however. Why were these reports released? I couldn’t help but yawn as I read through many hundreds of them. For the person who has been even marginally aware of happenings in the campaign, not much comes as a surprise. As I read through many of them, I recall thinking, “Yes, I remember this. I discussed it (on the record) with Major Cliff Gilmore,” or “I learned absolutely nothing from this report,” or “I wrote about this eight months ago.” The catalog is not the treasure trove of war crimes that it is made out to be. Far from it.
Richard Norton-Taylor with The Guardian waxes breathless on what he wishes to be the case.
More than a decade ago, when the cold war was well and truly over, American and British strategists began to celebrate what they called a “revolution in military affairs”. Information technology and “precision weapons”, products of the microchip, would lead to a new, western, way of warfare. Public opinion, it was said, would no longer tolerate civilian or military casualties.
The logs we publish today, a detailed chronicle of a violent conflict that has lasted longer than the Vietnam war, longer than the two world wars, shatter the illusion that conflicts could be meticulously planned and executed, and the assumption that bloodshed would be acceptable only in very limited quantities.
They demonstrate, too, that despite the opportunities provided by new technology, media groups with a global reach still cannot offer their public more than sporadic accounts of the most visible and controversial incidents, and glimpses of the background.
That is what government officials and military commanders have been saying for years and what they continue to say. The reality, as the logs show, is very different. They provide unprecedented insight, through the wood and the trees, painting a picture, via a myriad micro-episodes, of brutality, cynicism, fear, panic, false alarms and the killing of a large number of civilians – many more than of foreign troops or insurgents – by all sides in the conflict. And, inevitably, “friendly fire”. It is a story of deep-seated corruption by senior members of the Afghan police, of black operations by coalition special forces engaged in assassinations of dubious legality, of spies, and of unmanned but armed drones controlled by “pilots”, including private contractors, sitting in front of computers thousands of miles away in air-conditioned rooms in the Nevada desert.
It creates an illusion of war games isolating the drones’ controllers, national military commanders and politicians in their offices in London or Washington from the real violence and confusion on the ground in Afghanistan.
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The Taliban-led insurgents soon realised they were on a hiding to nothing when four years ago they first engaged British, US (though few of those were so exposed at the time) and other foreign troops in open gun battles. They adapted their tactics and their weaponry, resorting to increasingly powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which are now responsible for well over half of the deaths and serious injuries to foreign troops in Afghanistan. There are increasing signs, however, that insurgents, growing more confident, are reverting to rifles, putting more pressure on foreign soldiers by shooting at them from a distance.
According to the logs, special forces have killed “high value” targets without any attempt to capture them. The records say that British soldiers killed or wounded civilians on occasions by firing “warning shots”. They describe how US forces have killed British troops and Afghan forces by mistake, and how Afghan soldiers have killed their comrades by accident. They describe the difficulty in promoting “hearts and minds”, in dampening suspicions in a country where central government and its officials, let alone foreign forces, are distrusted, and where tribal loyalties and ethnic divisions cross internal administrative boundaries.
Military and government spokesmen may have covered up, misled, simply been ignorant of what was taking place. This is why the publication of the logs are so important.
Military commanders and officials no longer try to maintain the fiction which they were tempted to not so long ago. They came to admit that the war in Afghanistan is messy. The logs reveal just how messy it really is.
The ANP is corrupt. Is this news? So General McChrystal pressed SOF hits on high value targets. Anyone who has followed the war knows this, and I have argued against this tactic as inefficient and ineffective, and favored alignment of SOF with infantry and in contact with the population. This is a well worn debate, not something new and unique. There is no news here. So Pakistan’s ISI is complicit in assistance to the Taliban and even supportive of incidents within Afghanistan itself. Who doesn’t already know this? Again, there are unintended casualties in counterinsurgency campaigns. Is this really a surprise to anyone? War is messy. Did the British think otherwise?
The Guardian knows better, as does Julian Assange who defends his work by noting the “real nature of this war” and the need to hold those in power accountable. To anyone with a computer, some time and a little interest, none of this is news. The folks at the Guardian are either stupid (believing that war is bloodless) or they are lying (having followed the body count just like I have). Furthermore, they are either poor countrymen, holding that counterinsurgency is worth it as long as they sacrifice their own and no Afghans are killed, or ignorant, knowing nothing about the necessity to fight and kill the enemy.
The editors of the Guardian are not stupid or ignorant. They are ideologically motivated, just like Julian Assange. The embarrassing part for both of them is that, having admitted that “despite the opportunities provided by new technology, media groups with a global reach still cannot offer their public more than sporadic accounts of the most visible and controversial incidents, and glimpses of the background,” the literate among us know better. The media is preening and polishing their moral credentials. They shouldn’t be. More than anything else, this is a story about letting ideology get in the way of reporting, and about the failure of that same media to do the basic job of compiling information and analyzing it.