The leaking of a huge bundle of US military documents about the war in Afghanistan was condemned by the White House, but as soon as he’d done that, President Obama used the leak to highlight the need for a change of tactics in what most informed observers say is an unwinnable conflict.
More than 90,000 documents were made public by Wikileaks, a website dedicated to giving whistleblowers a chance to air with impunity, information deemed to be in the public interest. It was assisted by newspapers The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Speigel.
The documents, mostly internal memos from the battlefield to headquarters, cover US military action in Afghanistan between January 2004 and December 2009. They paint a grim picture of the undeniably cynical attitude of the military towards civilian casualties.
“When reporting their own activities US units are inclined to classify civilian kills as insurgent kills, downplay the number of people killed or otherwise make excuses for themselves,” Wikileaks says in its preamble to the documents. In one documented incident, in March 2007, a convoy of US Marines opened fire indiscriminately on a highway after a car-bomb attack, killing 19 unarmed civilians and wounding 50. The Americans initially reported the casualties as “28 civilians wounded”. A month later, an Army colonel admitted the incident had been “a terrible mistake” and compensation was paid to the victims’ families. However, no criminal charges have ever been brought. The Marines held their own inquiry and claimed their forces had “acted appropriately”.
Many more such incidents are revealed. Afghanis are increasingly hostile towards foreign military and there have been numerous protests against NATO forces.
US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates attacked Wikileaks, saying it was “morally guilty of putting people’s lives at risk”. A criminal inquiry is underway into the source of the leak. President Obama said the leak “could potentially jeopardise individuals or operations”, but then seized the opportunity to plug his new strategy on Afghanistan, which involves sending an extra 30,000 troops.
The leak may not have revealed anything that wasn’t already known or suspected, but it is likely to focus public attention on the mounting human cost of an operation bearing the unlikely name of ‘Enduring Freedom’. Nearly 2000 US servicemen were wounded in Afghanistan in the first six months of this year, and 60 service members were killed in June alone. And let’s not forget more than 4000 civilian casualties between January 2009 and March 2010