In the End, All We Have Is the Truth
by Charles Lemos, Mon Jul 26, 2010 at 11:25:12 AM EDT
There are those who are arguing that today's publishing of over 91,000 ISAF and US military documents, the largest leak of military documents in history, sheds little new light on the Afghan War. I beg to differ. Not that I expect our government to tell us the whole truth particularly when it comes to sensitive war information but on the other hand I don't expect the government to willfully mislead us either and in at least one instance, the downing of a US military chinook helicopter by the Taliban using surface-to-air missiles, that is the case. And given that we just scratched the surface of a titanic data dump, we are likely to learn more in the upcoming days and weeks of other instances where Western governments have willfully misled the public on the situation in Afghanistan.
The searing and inescapable fact is that today more than half way through 2010, the Taliban is stronger than at any point since they were toppled from power in 2001. We can blame Pakistan for aiding and abetting the Taliban but that relationship is now a two decade long one and not exactly a state secret. That Pakistan's ISI has played a double game should not obscure another searing and inescapable fact: the Taliban's resurgence is primarily a factor of 'blue on white' incidents.
There is a lot of jargon in these reports but color coding military-speak is remarkably straightforward. There are color codes for each of the actors in the Afghan conflict in the leaked reports.
Blue= friendlies, or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)
Green = Afghan National Army or other Afghani forces such as the police
White = Civilians
Thus, in the next few weeks, when you hear of "blue on blue" that would be friendly on friendly fire, or ISAF coalition forces accidentally shooting at each other. Green on green would be Afghanis accidentally or deliberately shooting at each other while blue on green signifies that ISAF troops accidentally hit the Afghan army or police. Blue on white would be ISAF or US forces shooting at Afghan civilians.
Say what you will about the now cashiered and retired General Stanley McChrystal's disrespect for members of the Obama Administration but one thing he got right was that every civilian death created ten new Taliban insurgents. He called it "Taliban math." His exact quote in the Rolling Stone article was "for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies." Hence, the rules of engagement were tightened on his orders and that did lead to a drop in blue on white fatalities. To loosen the rules of engagement, as some are calling for now, would unnecessarily lead to more civilian deaths and in the end only hasten our inevitable defeat.
The logs released today reveal at least 144 blue on white incidents. From The Guardian:
Some of these casualties come from the controversial air strikes that have led to Afghan government protests, but a large number of previously unknown incidents also appear to be the result of troops shooting unarmed drivers or motorcyclists out of a determination to protect themselves from suicide bombers.
At least 195 civilians are admitted to have been killed and 174 wounded in total, but this is likely to be an underestimate as many disputed incidents are omitted from the daily snapshots reported by troops on the ground and then collated, sometimes erratically, by military intelligence analysts.
Bloody errors at civilians' expense, as recorded in the logs, include the day French troops strafed a bus full of children in 2008, wounding eight. A US patrol similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers, and in 2007 Polish troops mortared a village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant woman, in an apparent revenge attack.
Questionable shootings of civilians by UK troops also figure. The US compilers detail an unusual cluster of four British shootings in Kabul in the space of barely a month, in October/November 2007, culminating in the death of the son of an Afghan general. Of one shooting, they wrote: "Investigation controlled by the British. We are not able to get [sic] complete story."
A second cluster of similar shootings, all involving Royal Marine commandos in Helmand province, took place in a six-month period at the end of 2008, according to the log entries. Asked by the Guardian about these allegations, the Ministry of Defence said: "We have been unable to corroborate these claims in the short time available and it would be inappropriate to speculate on specific cases without further verification of the alleged actions."
Rachel Reid, who investigates civilian casualty incidents in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, said: "These files bring to light what's been a consistent trend by US and Nato forces: the concealment of civilian casualties. Despite numerous tactical directives ordering transparent investigations when civilians are killed, there have been incidents I've investigated in recent months where this is still not happening.
The war is likely already lost if the aim was to prevent the Taliban from controlling vast swaths of Afghanistan. Most of the Pashtun areas are now effectively under Taliban control but if we continue to show such a wanton disregard for Afghan civilians then our defeat will come that much sooner and be that much greater.
That's why today's other big news from Afghanistan is such devastating news. From the New York Times:
At least 45 civilians, many women and children, were killed in a rocket attack by the NATO-led foreign force in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province last week, a spokesman for the Afghan government said on Monday.
The incident happened in Helmand's Sangin district on Friday when civilians crammed into a mud-built house to flee fighting between NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and Taliban insurgents, Siyamak Herawi told Reuters.
Reports of civilian deaths and casualties caused by foreign troops are a major cause of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers and often lead to street demonstrations.
If confirmed, the Sangin incident would be among the worst of its kind during the war. At least 30 civilians were killed in a NATO air strike called in by German forces in northern Kunduz in September last year.
A spokesman for ISAF said the alliance had conducted an operation against insurgents in Sangin on Friday and was investigating the reports of civilian deaths.
"We have an assessment team there right now," Major Michael Johnson told Reuters.
Civilians were also wounded in the attack, Herawi said after a separate investigation by the Afghan government was completed.
"The investigation shows that the rocket was fired by NATO and 45 civilians, many of them women and children, have been killed," he said.
In the end, all we have is the truth and the Obama Administration would be best served by facing the hard truth that this war is unwinnable if Afghan civilian casualties mount and that US interests would be better served with the lighter footprint that a counter-terrorism approach offers. In January 2009 before taking office, Joe Biden noted that the situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated significantly and that “it’s going to be a very heavy lift.” Well, today it is an even heavier lift because the situation has deteriorated significantly in the eight months since President Obama announced his support for a counter-insurgency approach.