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by Con Coughlin
Published by: Telegraph UK
Date: July 27, 2010
When, at the height of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, a disaffected Pentagon analyst published explosive details about how the White House was running the campaign, US military commanders soon found themselves being forced into ordering a humiliating retreat from the war zone.
The papers revealed how the White House had intentionally expanded military action by authorising the carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos, while insisting it had no desire to seek “a wider war”. Even though most of the deception played on the American public had been undertaken by Democrat presidents, particularly Lyndon B Johnson, it was left to the Republican Richard Nixon to implement the withdrawal strategy.
Now anti-war campaigners opposed to the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan are desperately hoping that history is about to repeat itself following publication of tens of thousands of secret Pentagon documents relating to the Afghan war.
The extracts, which are drawn from US military and intelligence report logs and have been published on the anti-war website Wikileaks, provide some disturbing reading. They show how nearly 200 civilians have been killed by Nato troops, while there has been a steep increase in Taliban attacks on coalition forces. A “secret” Special Forces unit has been created to “capture or kill” key Taliban commanders, and US forces are increasingly using unmanned Reaper drones to attack Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.
The Taliban, meanwhile, has acquired heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, and has caused significant civilian casualties through the increased use of roadside bombs. The insurgents have also received valuable support from Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service, which is supposed to be Washington’s most important regional ally.
But, hang on a minute, you might well say. There is very little that is new in this material. The reason, after all, that the Pentagon Papers had such a dramatic impact on the course of the American involvement in Vietnam is that they contained hitherto unknown details about a major political deception. The “logs of war”, on the other hand, have succeeded in generating much publicity without actually telling us anything we did not already know about a war that is proving to be immensely complex and challenging for all those attempting to bring it to a successful conclusion.
The material does, admittedly, add some uncomfortable detail to aspects of the campaign. One of the Nato mission’s greatest shortcomings has been the unacceptably high civilian casualty rate, the result of what the military categorises as “blue on white” incidents.
The battle for hearts and minds among the Afghan civilian population is not going to be won if those same civilians are the unwitting targets of Nato air strikes.
Last week’s as yet unconfirmed missile strike by a Nato helicopter in Helmand, which killed at least 45 civilians, is the latest example of how careless military conduct alienates the local population.
Now we learn that Polish troops fired mortars at an Afghan village in revenge after one of their number was injured by a roadside bomb, while in separate incidents American and French troops fired at school buses after they feared they were about to be attacked by suicide bombers.
Arguably the most controversial allegations, though, concern the alleged links between the Taliban and Pakistan’s ISI. The Taliban was established by the ISI in the 1990s to counter the growing influence of its deadly rival India in neighbouring Afghanistan, and there has been much criticism of Pakistan over persistent reports that the ISI has continued to maintain its links with the Taliban, even after Nato began to deploy in force to southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2006.
The intelligence files published by Wikileaks provide further particulars of Pakistan’s continued support for the Taliban, including covert ISI plots to train legions of suicide bombers, smuggle anti-aircraft missiles into Afghanistan, assassinate President Hamid Karzai and even poison beer supplies destined for Western troops.
Pakistan’s problematic relationship with its former protégés in the Taliban leadership remains an important issue for the Obama administration, which feels that it deserves a better return on the $1 billion a year of aid it provides to Islamabad.
But then, like so many of the “revelations” in the Wikileaks material, the tensions in this crucial strategic relationship are well-documented, and they conveniently overlook the fact that both sides have made radical changes to the level of cooperation that now exists between the two countries.
Washington’s decision at the start of the Obama presidency to see the conflict as affecting Pakistani interests as much as those of Afghanistan – the “Af-Pak strategy” – has helped to make Islamabad feel more closely involved in the Nato mission, rather than just being a wary onlooker.
The Pakistanis, for their part, have also raised their game dramatically during the past few years under President Asif Ali Zardari. Their military has suffered far greater casualties than Nato in its recent campaign against Taliban militants, and while Islamabad clearly needs to do more, it is at least moving in the right direction.
The improvement in Washington’s relations with Pakistan, moreover, must be seen as part of a wider reappraisal of Nato’s mission objectives undertaken by General Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander of Nato forces.
The McChrystal doctrine, which was formally adopted by President Barack Obama at the end of last
year, places far more emphasis on working to rehabilitate Taliban fighters, rather than simply killing them. New rules of engagement, specifically designed to reduce civilian casualties, place severe restrictions on the ability of Nato forces to defend themselves even when under attack.
But there is little mention of these fundamental changes from the anti-war campaigners, whose aim in publishing the Afghan war logs is to turn public opinion in the US and Europe irrevocably against the campaign.
The carefully orchestrated publicity campaign, where details of the military logs were published simultaneously in the US, Britain and Germany, is aimed at further undermining public support for the conflict at a time when politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are discussing how long they are prepared to allow their forces to undertake combat operations.
Both David Cameron and Mr Obama have already indicated that they want to start scaling down their military commitment to Afghanistan next year, while the revelation in yesterday’s Der Spiegel that US forces were using German bases in northern Afghanistan to attack the Taliban will undoubtedly increase public pressure on Berlin to reduce its involvement.
As one senior Washington official commented yesterday: “They want publication of this material to have the same effect on public support for the Afghan war as the Abu Ghraib pictures had on the Iraq conflict.”
For that to happen, the release of the war logs will need to become one of the defining moments in the history of the Afghan conflict. Otherwise they will simply fade into obscurity.
Yesterday Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks who organised the international publicity blitz, said that by publishing the material he wanted to change the way people regarded the war. In an interview in Der Spiegel, he said: “I enjoy crushing bastards. The most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war. And they need to be stopped.” He said he believed that “thousands of war crimes” had been committed in Afghanistan, and called on governments to bring prosecutions where there was sufficient evidence.
Mr Assange is clearly a man with a mission, which is to wreck the entire Nato campaign in Afghanistan, with all the implications that will have for Western security. Whether or not he succeeds will depend on how public opinion responds to his project and how much the leaks can, as he claims, “shift political will”.
This House Believes That The World Needs the Wikileaks