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The leaking of 90,000 combat reports from Afghanistan reveals a familiar but depressing picture of operations in Afghanistan. Yet their revelation comes at a critical juncture for policymakers.
By Professor Michael Clarke for RUSI.org
The leaking of combat reports in the midst of an ongoing conflict is never a good thing for the authorities; not least because the reports are raw intelligence material which, by definition, lacks context and perspective. When soldiers report what they honestly think they saw happen, they are wrong more often than they are right. Combat is like that - confusing, mind scrambling and full of apparitions. So it is true that none of these reports should be taken at face value.
It is also true that since they refer to the period from 2004 to 2009, they represent Afghanistan operations before the new strategic focus of President Obama, General McChrystal, and now General Petraeus took effect. 'These criticisms are out of date' is the standard response of organisations under pressure, but in this case there is a fair amount of truth in that.
Revealing strategic incoherence
Nevertheless, these documents cannot be dismissed lightly, if only because there are 75,000 of them. If any given piece of the mosaic cannot be relied upon, they still make up a discernable picture that casts the approach to Afghanistan operations after 2002 in a poor light.
Taken as a whole, they give some chapter and verse to the wasted years before 2008; where first there was no coherence at all in the western world's strategy for Afghanistan; then there was some coherence but no effective resource; to the point two years ago when a clear strategy finally emerged alongside a renewed commitment to make it all work. But still, it doesn't quite happen. The enormity of the challenge in stabilising Afghan society after 30 years of war is simply greater than our political commitment to do so.
That has left military action predominant and in the middle of a civil war it is never as discriminating as it needs to be. Civilians always become casualties. In part this was due to an earlier confusion between chasing terrorists, suppressing the Taliban, and simply failing to understand the complexities of Afghan society. After the victories in Iraq in 2003 - and before that country taught some salutary lessons - US forces put too much faith in fighting their Afghan enemies rather than securing their Afghan friends. The insurgents then and now go out of their way to provoke Coalition forces to mistakes or local acts of revenge; and these documents indicate that Coalition forces have fallen into the trap far too often.
These documents include material that is genuinely sensitive in terms of the grand strategy of the Afghan War. Among this collection of documents, 180 of them refer explicitly to the role of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, giving some explicit detail on the way the ISI backed the Haqqani network that is credited with almost all the Taliban attacks on Kabul. The ISI is even implicated in these documents with direct linkage with Mullah Omar, the acknowledged leader of the Afghan Taliban.
The documents also detail the degree and style of Iranian involvement in the conflict; not wanting it to turn decisively in favour of the Taliban, but doing enough to keep US and allied forces tied into a distracting and difficult war. This includes technical aid to warlords such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - a former Afghan prime minister and now a powerful local power-broker, and the supply of new weapons and IED designs into the theatre of operations. There are some reports here that man-portable anti-aircraft systems (MANPADS) are being supplied into the theatre; shoulder-launched missiles to bring down ISAF helicopters.
There must be some scepticism about this. It is possible that a few of the 250 or so extant Stinger missiles from the Mujahideen period might still (just) be operational. There is some suspicion that the Chinook helicopter that was brought down in May 2007 might have been the result of something other than small arms fire. But the introduction of a significant number of anti-aircraft missiles into Afghanistan - and the necessary training of Taliban operators - would be a game changing development in this war. The intelligence services monitor the possibility of such systems coming over the border from Iran very carefully. So far, there is no reliable indication that it is even beginning to happen. But in a war that hangs so much on the use of airpower and air transport, it is a spectre that hangs over the whole operational theatre. In effect, these documents add weight to the view that it has not happened so far, notwithstanding one or two of them that are alive to the possibility.
These significant political aspects of the exposure, however, are effectively overshadowed by the overall picture the 75,000 documents offer. They will stand as testimony to the number of civilians who have become casualties of a badly focussed international military campaign.
The issue of civilian casualties is the ultimate hot potato in operations like this. It genuinely enrages the Afghans and the Government in Kabul. No matter that Afghanistan is traditionally a cruel and vengeful society; this suffering is caused by foreigners. And it causes deep disquiet in western capitals. No matter that this is old news; it comes at a new moment of decision. Civilians have suffered greatly in all counter-insurgency operations, from Malaya onwards. In those days their suffering was not transmitted so readily to the world. Then Vietnam changed the paradigm. In the 1960s the US military seemed to have failed to understand the basic difference between friend and enemy in a conflict that took on a dynamic of its own and which lacked any strategy at all until 1970.
Operations in Afghanistan should not be compared to that travesty of military power in any objective sense. Nor should these documents be compared to the Pentagon Papers of 1971 that revealed a culture of deceit and evasion at the very top of the US Government in relation to the Vietnam War. Even in those days, it was possible to shield the truth on the ground in Vietnam from much of the world's press for a very long time. These papers are not of the same order. They should not make Afghanistan look like Vietnam. But it is a fair bet that they will nevertheless have the effect of doing so. If the overall picture still looks different, these 75,000 bits of the mosaic that make it up still have an eerie and disturbing feel to them.