Secret Afghan files expose naked truth of a nasty war
The battle to justify Afghanistan as a war worth fighting just got a lot harder, says Patrick Cockburn
Published 28/07/2010 | 08:00
Pictures of prisoners being tormented in Abu Ghraib led to a tidal wave of revulsion against the US occupation of Iraq. The release of the vast archive of US military documents on Afghanistan is not likely to have the same explosive impact.
But the sheer nastiness of the conflict is vividly conjured by the cumulative effect of thousands of uncensored reports from the frontline. The Afghan Files explain why the Kabul government is getting weaker, despite the fact that the US now has over 90,000 troops fighting 28,000 Taliban at a cost of $300bn (£190bn) over the last nine years.
And they will make it still harder in future for the US and British governments to explain why they are fighting to preserve an Afghan government so rotten with corruption and brutally uncaring towards its own people.
Much of what is now documented from official sources had already been exposed by journalists. But the 91,000 leaked reports paint a detailed picture of the realities of life in contemporary Afghanistan. As was to be expected, the White House and the Pentagon have denounced the revelations as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Yet few secrets have actually been revealed.
Afghans know all too well that US-led death squads have long been arbitrarily killing suspected Taliban, along with anybody else who got in their way.
The fact that more Afghan civilians were being gunned down at checkpoints or killed by ill-directed air strikes than was officially admitted will come as no surprise to Afghans who have been at the receiving end of coalition firepower.
It has been difficult hitherto to convey what words like "brutality" and "corruption" mean in their Afghan context. Corruption is so pervasive that a substantial part of the income of poor villagers is spent bribing officials. The presence of foreign forces and their vulnerable supply lines likewise opens the door to profitable protection rackets.
In one instance, a fuel convoy travelling from Kandahar to Oruzgan was stopped by 100 well-armed insurgents who demanded $2,000-a-truck to let it proceed.
The insurgents turned out to work for Matiullah Khan, a pro-government, US-backed warlord in Oruzgan who was already being paid by the Afghan Interior Ministry to protect Nato convoys on the road.
The Taliban began their comeback in 2006 and by 2007 it was in full swing. In September that year, in the town of Gardez, officials spoke frankly to an American civil affairs official about the way they thought things were going.
"The people of Afghanistan keep losing their trust in the government because of the high amount of corrupt government officials," one said. "The general view of the Afghans is that the current government is worse than the Taliban."
The US official recorded bleakly: "The people will support the Anti-Coalition forces and the security condition will degenerate."
How accurate are the reports? Those by US officials reflect their perception of what was happening while those by Afghans about Pakistani involvement in support of the Taliban are dubious.
It is certainly true that, overall, Pakistani military intelligence does have a strong influence, but not quite full control, over the Taliban.
Taliban safe havens in Pakistan are never quite safe and the Taliban say privately that, while they can operate in Pakistan, they never know when they might be arrested.
Overall, Wikileaks' leaked dossier gives the impression of the US military floundering into war and only gradually realising the weakness of the Afghan government.
Above all, the documents convey a sense of bewilderment that the US military should be making great efforts - and achieving so little.