Sunday, July 25, 2010

WikiLeaks and Afghanistan: Why were civilian casualties kept secret?

Quite coincidentally, I posted earlier today on why it's important to keep civilian casualties low in the Afghanistan conflict -- even if the result is that American troops sometimes find themselves more endangered than their weaponry suggests they need to be.

Now The Guardian goes into some detail about how the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan has been more widespread than reported:

The logs detail, in sometimes harrowing vignettes, the toll on civilians exacted by coalition forces: events termed "blue on white" in military jargon. The logs reveal 144 such incidents.

Some of these casualties come from the controversial air strikes that have led to Afghan government protests, but a large number of previously unknown incidents also appear to be the result of troops shooting unarmed drivers or motorcyclists out of a determination to protect themselves from suicide bombers.

At least 195 civilians are admitted to have been killed and 174 wounded in total, but this is likely to be an underestimate as many disputed incidents are omitted from the daily snapshots reported by troops on the ground and then collated, sometimes erratically, by military intelligence analysts.

Bloody errors at civilians' expense, as recorded in the logs, include the day French troops strafed a bus full of children in 2008, wounding eight. A US patrol similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers, and in 2007 Polish troops mortared a village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant woman, in an apparent revenge attack.

Horrifying stuff. But the question it raises for me is: Why were these civilian deaths kept secret? And who were they kept secret from?

Well, they're obviously documented in military memoranda, so -- broadly speaking -- it doesn't sound like these were snafus committed by lower-ranking personnel and concealed from superiors. And one assumes -- again, generally speaking -- that Afghans understood their wives and sons and cousins had died as the result of coalition military action.

Who does that leave in the dark? You and me.

There's 90,000 documents in this dump. That means it is inevitable that there's stuff in there that many, maybe most of us, will wish had not seen the light of day because of its potential for use against U.S. and coalition troops. But I suspect -- as is often the case -- we'll find that lots of stuff that was classified from public view was done so more out of convenience (at best) or out of a desire to keep the public in the dark about the details of the war (at worst). The government's tendency is to make information secret far beyond the bounds of necessity. The citizenry, I suspect, will be better served because it is allowed to know the stuff that was formerly secret.

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