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

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.