Leading article: A light shone on the dark side of this war

Related Topics

The tens of thousands of secret US military documents passed to the Wikileaks website paint a far grimmer picture of the war in Afghanistan than our political leaders have ever conveyed. They show that Western forces are often scandalously careless of civilian life in that country. Some 140 incidents are recorded in which Afghan civilians were killed. They died in misdirected airstrikes, shooting sprees by panicking troops, or raids by Special Forces. And it not only the US military which has been responsible for such carnage. Polish, French, German and British troops are also recorded as killing civilians. While it is impossible to verify all that is contained in these documents, it is clear enough that appalling events have gone unreported by Western forces.

The papers also confirm that the Pakistani intelligence agencies are suspected of aiding the Afghan Taliban; that there is deep corruption in Hamid Karzai's government and that the country's police forces are often unreliable. Much of this was already known of course. Special Forces were generally understood to be operating in the country. The collusion between elements within the Islamabad intelligence services and the Taliban has been an open secret for years. And complaints of official corruption have been commonplace. What has changed is that we now have documentary evidence of this dark side of the Afghan conflict.

And in the case of botched operations we can compare the picture presented by these documents with the official accounts put out by the Nato coalition over the years. And that reveals perhaps the gravest scandal of all. We see how military spokesmen and government officials repeatedly misled the public and concealed the truth. After one raid that went wrong, the coalition claimed, with no clear evidence to back it up, that the Taliban had used civilians as human shields. After another, it put out a statement noting the death of insurgents, but making no mention of the civilian casualties incurred. The misinformation fed to the public both in Afghanistan and the West has been routine. And none of this could have been justified as necessary to protect the lives of troops or for reasons of operational secrecy. This deception was about covering up horrendous mistakes by Western forces.

The documents raise profound questions about this war. We are told that the strategic goal is in Afghanistan to win the support and confidence of the native population. And yet the record appears to show that an Afghan life is worth far less than that of any Westerner.

Have things changed? These documents date from the period between January 2004 and December 2009. Since then we have had the orders of the former military commander, General Stanley McChrystal, for troops to place a greater emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties. But those casualties continue. Only last week, 45 civilians were apparently killed in an air strike in Helmand. It also stretches credulity to suggest that military practices have changed beyond recognition in the past seven months.

In their response to these documents the authorities have demonstrated that they have learned little since the leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Washington has once again attacked the messenger for compromising national security, rather than addressing the substance of the revelations. Instead of complaining about whistleblowers, the US and other Nato governments, including our own, need to explain how they will perform a thorough audit of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and prevent military spokesmen misinforming the public again. Until they make a serious commitment to enhance transparency, the only conclusion that many will draw is that the appalling picture these documents paint of the Afghan war remains the reality.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Prime Minister David Cameron says his party must not ‘remain neutral’ in the EU membership referendum  

Greece might just have gifted David Cameron with EU referendum success

John Mullin
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most