Norton-Taylor, Guardian, 25 July 2010
Real picture of a conflict longer than Vietnam, or either world war, refutes the idea of a ‘revolution in military affairs’
More than a decade ago, when the cold war was well and truly over, American and British strategists began to celebrate what they called a “revolution in military affairs”. Information technology and “precision weapons”, products of the microchip, would lead to a new, western, way of warfare. Public opinion, it was said, would no longer tolerate civilian or military casualties.
The logs we publish today, a detailed chronicle of a violent conflict that has lasted longer than the Vietnam war, longer than the two world wars, shatter the illusion that conflicts could be meticulously planned and executed, and the assumption that bloodshed would be acceptable only in very limited quantities.
They demonstrate, too, that despite the opportunities provided by new technology, media groups with a global reach still cannot offer their public more than sporadic accounts of the most visible and controversial incidents, and glimpses of the background.
Donald Rumsfeld and his fellow neocons in Washington translated the “revolution in military affairs” into “shock and awe”. When that didn’t work in Iraq, General David Petraeus rewrote the US army’s field manual. The British army belatedly followed suit, as the two countries providing the vast majority of troops to Afghanistan set out a modern counter-insurgency strategy, a battle for “hearts and minds”, a war “among the people, for the people”. Above all, civilians would be protected.
That is what government officials and military commanders have been saying for years and what they continue to say. The reality, as the logs show, is very different. They provide unprecedented insight, through the wood and the trees, painting a picture, via a myriad micro-episodes, of brutality, cynicism, fear, panic, false alarms and the killing of a large number of civilians – many more than of foreign troops or insurgents – by all sides in the conflict. And, inevitably, “friendly fire”. It is a story of deep-seated corruption by senior members of the Afghan police, of black operations by coalition special forces engaged in assassinations of dubious legality, of spies, and of unmanned but armed drones controlled by “pilots”, including private contractors, sitting in front of computers thousands of miles away in air-conditioned rooms in the Nevada desert.
It creates an illusion of war games isolating the drones’ controllers, national military commanders and politicians in their offices in London or Washington from the real violence and confusion on the ground in Afghanistan.
Sophisticated communications and weapons systems, which often provide false comfort, can lead to information overload and excess firepower adding to the confusion – the fog of war – rather than clearing it away. This war of the future, as military strategists now describe it, costing billions of pounds a year, is no conventional conflict with fixed positions on a battlefield, a clear enemy and friendly forces.
The Taliban-led insurgents soon realised they were on a hiding to nothing when four years ago they first engaged British, US (though few of those were so exposed at the time) and other foreign troops in open gun battles. They adapted their tactics and their weaponry, resorting to increasingly powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which are now responsible for well over half of the deaths and serious injuries to foreign troops in Afghanistan. There are increasing signs, however, that insurgents, growing more confident, are reverting to rifles, putting more pressure on foreign soldiers by shooting at them from a distance.
According to the logs, special forces have killed “high value” targets without any attempt to capture them. The records say that British soldiers killed or wounded civilians on occasions by firing “warning shots”. They describe how US forces have killed British troops and Afghan forces by mistake, and how Afghan soldiers have killed their comrades by accident. They describe the difficulty in promoting “hearts and minds”, in dampening suspicions in a country where central government and its officials, let alone foreign forces, are distrusted, and where tribal loyalties and ethnic divisions cross internal administrative boundaries.
Military and government spokesmen may have covered up, misled, simply been ignorant of what was taking place. This is why the publication of the logs are so important.
Military commanders and officials no longer try to maintain the fiction which they were tempted to not so long ago. They came to admit that the war in Afghanistan is messy. The logs reveal just how messy it really is.