Monday 26 July 2010

Afghanistan - The real story?

In the Guardian today I've been reading their extensive coverage on the published US Military reports on the war in Afghanistan, which were leaked today by the whistleblowing website Wikileaks.

I reckon this has to be one of the most significant days in the Afghanistan war since US and NATO troops entered the country in 2001.

The story reminds me a bit of the MP Expenses scandal from last year but perhaps on a bigger scale. I don't think the reports are necessarily scandalous, critics of the leak have argued that much of the information revealed was already known, but it does tend to shine a light on the darker murkier aspects of what's really going on in Afghanistan.

The Guardian, the New York Times and the German magazine Der Spiegal have simultaneously published over 90,000 classified military documents relating to the Afghan war.

The files cover the period between January 2004 and December 2009 revealing a range of information on the war.

Topics which have stood out include the number of civilian deaths, information on secret special forces operations, particularly units responsible for capturing and killing Taliban leaders, and evidence of Pakistan and Iran supporting the Taliban.

Although much of the reports hightlight what was already known, it's still come as a surprise to me the number of reported civilian deaths!

We're always being told that our presence in Afghanistan was very much about winning the 'hearts and minds' of the local population. It doesn't sound like we're succeeding on that front with so many innocent Afghans being killed.

Being a student of journalism, I've also thought about the journalistic merits of the leak. Was it right for these accounts to be published by Wikileak? Does it actually help or hinder the campaign in Afghanistan?

Not unsurprisingly the US Military chiefs have have been highly critical claiming the lives of thousands of troops are being put at risk along with US National security.

You'd expect them to say that though, and to be honest I don't believe that publications such as the New York Times and the Guardian would choose to behave so irresponsibly by publishing such sensitive material.

I had a look at the New York Times website today and they wrote:

"The Times has taken care not to publish information that would harm national security interests. The Times and the other news organizations agreed at the outset that we would not disclose — either in our articles or any of our online supplementary material — anything that was likely to put lives at risk or jeopardize military or anti terrorist operations."

On a personal level I think the information revealed has given me more insight into the conflict, and I'm sure like many people made me think more about the overall strategy of American and British forces. It's obviously going to put more pressure on the US government, but this must be a good thing in the long run.

Clearly there are many people who are critical or oppose US and NATO policy in Afghanistan. These revelations will help to vindicate their opposition.

I do think these leaks have revealed an unreported side of the war which we don't hear about from official military and government sources.

Like a lot of people I've been sceptical as to whether America and its allies could claim a conventional military victory in Afghanistan. There were so many factors stacked against that kind of outright success. These leaks have just shown the situation is even more difficult, complex and chaotic than many pessimists would have imagined.

It's been an impressive collaboration between the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Speigal to produce this news story. It's certainly valuable journalism based on the public interest, and for that reason it's right that these documents have been leaked.

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