What's Missing From the Wikileaks Afghanistan Logs

Addressing civilian harm is now one of ISAF's key counterinsurgency tools, but with the level of accumulated mistrust over the lack of disclosure illustrated by these war logs, it may be coming 9 years too late.
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The recently Wiki-leaked military logs from the war in Afghanistan offer a level of transparency about civilian casualties that countless investigations, several military tactical directives, and hundreds of news reports have not. By not addressing these issues openly earlier and providing a minimum of accountability, ISAF has sabotaged its counterinsurgency strategy, potentially beyond repair.

Much of the press coverage of the more than 75,000 military logs published on Wikileaks has focused on the frequent incidents of civilian casualties. Many of these incidents -- from a CIA shooting of a deaf mute who failed to respond to warnings, to a retaliatory strike by Polish troops killing 5 civilians at a wedding party -- have not been reported before, or at least not in great detail. Further, the frequency of incidents like checkpoint shootings illustrates better than any statistics the level of day-to-day fear and violence that have turned so many Afghan civilians against the international military.

Yet for all the incidents we know about now, thanks to this new public information, the database says a lot more about how much we don't know about the last 9 years. While many civilian casualty incidents are recorded, many more publicly acknowledged incidents do not appear in the Wikileaks dataset. For example, an airstrike in July 2008 that killed 47 civilians, the vast majority women and children, was never reported. An airstrike on November 5, 2008 that killed 40 civilians near Kandahar was not noted. Almost none of the known incidents of problematic night raids -- in which incidents of detainee abuse, civilian casualties, or extreme property destruction or cultural disrespect occurred -- are recorded. If these major incidents did not trigger even an initial cursory report, what else was left out?

In addition, information that does appear in the records seems incomplete or inaccurate. An incident from June 20, 2007 in Chora, Uruzgan, is listed as responsible for 43 insurgent deaths, with no civilian casualties. The final investigation by the UN and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, however, found as many as 80 civilian deaths. On September 4, 2009, an airstrike on insurgents attempting to hijak a fuel tanker in northern Kunduz province is logged, with initial reports suggesting no civilians in the area. However, international media and monitors later found at least 60 civilian deaths.

In both of these cases, the media and independent monitors learned of the incident and pressed for follow up investigations and accurate reporting. But there are many areas of Afghanistan that are inaccessible due to insecurity, and in these areas there is a strong chance that media, the United Nations, or other monitors might never find out. Given what we now know about the way the military track these incidents, and their past record of foot-dragging on public accountability, would inaccurate initial reporting ever be questioned in these cases? An example from the Guardian's investigation suggests not: "There is also at least one episode of UK shootings which the war logs cover up. On 3 December 2006 the US database merely records that a convoy struck an IED in Kandahar, wounding three Royal Marines and causing 25 civilian casualties. But Guardian correspondent Declan Walsh, who was on the scene, interviewed victims in hospital. Witnesses described a shooting spree in which vengeful or scared UK soldiers shot at bystanders, killing two and wounding five. The MoD never publicly investigated these allegations."

These gaps in information need not be deliberate, or malicious. It's not clear how exhaustive this Wikileaks collection is. There may have been other reports filed that have not been publicly leaked. In addition, many of the reports in these files appear to be initial reports, later to be amended upon investigation. Few of these later reports appear in the Wikileaks log. Finally, there's no question that getting to the facts of any encounter is difficult. In many cases it may not be possible to get back to the scene of an incident immediately without putting both soldiers and civilian lives at risk yet again. Even where follow up is possible, there are many hard cases in Afghanistan, in which no amount of research and investigation can make clear exactly what happened.

Yet whether one views these holes in the record as deliberate, negligent, or simply unavoidable, the failure to address the flaws in tracking and accounting for civilian harm, or even to be moderately transparent about these deficiencies, has been extremely harmful to the families affected and to the success of the overall mission in Afghanistan.

After an incident, it is common for Afghan families to seek out international military to ask after family members who have been detained, to seek an apology or compensation, or simply to get answers for why their family was attacked. Most of the time, they have walked away unsatisfied. The standard response of international military to concerned Afghan civilians, or to interlocutors like myself, has been that the incident did not happen, or that no civilians were harmed.

Afghan civilians and civil society have long maintained that many incidents go unreported, yet it has always been hard to prove the negative and international military tend to be given the benefit of the doubt. In meetings with the media, independent monitors, or concerned Afghan officials, incidents of civilian casualties are often denied or minimized, often with an implication that the Afghan civilians in question are lying or exaggerating, motivated by personal greed or insurgent propaganda. International military assert that they account for every bullet fired, and every engagement in which there troops are involved. There is no way that an incident could escape their notice, they say, and they always come first with the truth. Yet the data in the Wikileaks logs casts doubt on those assertions: it appears that many incidents have gone unreported, and many more were simply never disclosed.

Afghan communities and human rights monitors have long called for greater transparency and accountability, and the latest information coming out of Wikileaks makes it only too clear why. Afghan anger over civilian casualties has been a top cause of Afghan resentment and anger at international forces; and a leading recruitment tool for the Taliban. Preventing and addressing civilian harm is now one of ISAF's key counterinsurgency tools, but with the level of accumulated mistrust over the type of civilian harm and lack of disclosure illustrated by these war logs, it may be coming 9 years too late. With a bit more transparency and honesty in dealing with the harm caused by their forces earlier on, the international military might not be in position it is in now.