Tuesday, 27 July 2010


I find myself in the position of both (generally) supporting the war in Afghanistan, and supporting the release of intelligence documents by Wikileaks. Although it is not a point seemingly recognised by the authorities (at least officially or in press briefings), given that the latter has revealed some interesting and unpleasant truths about the former, I think the release will keep things honest and transparent, and will ultimately better serve the interests of Afghans and ourselves.

Admittedly, in the short term the release will (justifiably) cause outrage in Afghanistan and (unjustifiably) consternation in the West, and this may even serve to undermine the war. However, in the longer term the release will (hopefully) make our generals and politicians less gung-ho in action and less self-serving in reporting. It will also (again, hopefully) make the general public realise that actions such as those in Afghanistan aren't as clean as they are presented, while at the same time providing a base from which it's possible for an interested observer to quantify and compare the positives and negatives of military action.

What I haven't heard anyone say yet, and what I hope the general public is smart enough to pick up on, is that the "negatives" in Afghanistan need to be properly contextualised. This is one of the largest unintended declassifications ever, making our view of the war in Afghanistan much more complete than for other, corresponding wars. As such it would be very easy to mistakenly assume that Afghanistan is aberrantly bloody, and judge it accordingly. In all likelihood, other conflicts are similarly indiscriminate in their separation of friend and foe, but just not reported on as thoroughly (though I note that this "intelligence malfunction" is largely thanks to a single operative rather than dedicated work by journalists).

A similar phenomenon occurs with so-called "friendly fire" incidents that are now widely reported in the West. Until Gulf War 1, I don't think I'd ever heard this term used, but by Gulf War 2 (the sequel) it was common currency in war reporting (and even used to foster anti-American sentiment in some quarters). Does this mean that there were no incidents in earlier wars in which soldiers from the same side shot one another? Obviously not; and transparently so when one considers that battlefield communications are now vastly superior to how they were in the early 20th century. But the asymmetry in the quality and quantity of information available between modern and historical conflicts should always be carefully considered.

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