Wikileaks' Afghan/Iraq Logs: Searching for Accountability

As Wikileaks prepares to release more documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, will greater accountability follow?

A string of shootings by British troops in a non-combat zone resulting in scores of dead civilians; a highway rampage by US troops; a deaf boy shot at when orders barked at him did not illicit a response; a previously unknown US special forces unit reporting directly to the White House, as well as a 'capture kill' list with which they operated, and their botched up missions that resulted in scores of casualties, including the deaths of children at an Islamic school.

The largest leak of classified military documents in US history revealed these incidents and many more. Nevertheless, the Afghan war logs published by Wikileaks on July 25 prompted no official apology or investigation into their contents.

Instead, they were swiftly downplayed by the White House and Pentagon, with Barack Obama, the US president, telling a press conference that "these documents do not reveal any issues that have not already informed our public debate on Afghanistan".

With several other leaks - including one with some 15,000 more documents on Afghanistan reported to include even more extensive and damming revelations - due to soon be released, the human rights community is hoping that a cue will be taken from their reactions to the first release and that increased accountability will follow.

Evidence of war crimes?

Speaking from Baghdad in the wake of the first documents' release, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said: "Much has changed since 2009, particularly with respect to our focus, our new strategy in Afghanistan ...." However, an August 2010 report by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan bemoaned the increase in civilian deaths related to the occupation and conflict compared to the same period in 2009 - including hundreds caused by occupying forces.

Furthermore, representatives of the human rights community and foreign policy analysts paint a very different picture of the logs than that presented by the Obama administration, arguing that they reveal evidence of previously unreported or under-reported war crimes, including apparent revenge rampages, secret task forces running amok and attempts to cover-up or gloss over atrocities with little to no investigation.

Noam Chomsky told Al Jazeera that the logs "revealed [the] realities of the war that the media had not reported and by the same token, illustrated their failing", while Bob Naiman, an analyst and investigator from the organization Just Foreign Policy, said they showed "that incidents were covered up, under-reported or denied in spite of press and/or human rights reports to the contrary".

Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director, said the documents clearly illustrate that "there was an incoherent system of tracking accountability by NATO," which has a "long way to go" before the problem is corrected.

As a result of the leak, human rights analysts were also able to compare many of their previous findings and research with what the military was doing at the time, shedding light on exactly how the military under-reported deaths, covered them up or did not report them at all. Rachel Reid, an investigator for Human Rights Watch, explained that the "files bring to light what's been a consistent trend by US and NATO forces: The concealment of civilian casualties".

They contend that if the policies related to the abuses detailed in the logs were taken more seriously, it could mean the difference between life and death for an untold number of Afghan civilians.

Civilian shootings

Details surrounding at least six possible war crimes emerged from the released Afghan war logs, including a string of shootings by British troops.

The shootings occurred in Kabul between October and November 2007 and, according to Zarifi, had not been known about before the logs were released. He argues that these incidents could be considered war crimes because they occurred in a location which was not at the time of the shootings considered a military zone of conflict.

The first three incidents recorded by the log note a string of shooting injuries: Two to three bullet wounds to a "non-combatant" on October 4, 2007, three interpreters shot upon and wounded in their vehicle on October 21, and four days later, a wounded passerby at a checkpoint.

On November 6 a civilian killing was added to the Kabul shootings, with additional concerns noted about possible demonstrations because the victim was the son of an Afghan general. But the logs did not reveal which soldiers had undertaken these shootings, although some news outlets have speculated that a detachment of Coldstream Guards - an elite unit first founded in Scotland and which, according to the official UK military operations blog, had been in Afghanistan since 2007 - was responsible.

There have been no further and public actions taken to assess culpability.

A revenge rampage?

A suicide attack and IED explosion targeted a 120-man convoy of US marines on March 4, 2007 in Shinwar, injuring one soldier. Immediately following the attack, the marines then tore down a six-mile stretch of highway, opening automatic and indiscriminate fire on civilians, including teenage girls and elderly men.

Journalists who attempted to take photographs and video footage of the scene were reportedly harassed and threatened, while the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that the marines "cleaned up" the scene and disposed of physical evidence, including bullet casings and cartridges.

The human rights community reacted strongly to the incident and Zarifi said the shootings contained "prima-facie evidence of violations of international humanitarian law".

An internal investigation conducted by the same military unit involved in the incident exonerated the convoy of any wrongdoing. However, the 2,000 page internal report was never disclosed and the unit was dismissed by a high-ranking US general - something that rarely happens.

Task Force 373

Little was known about an elite 'black' unit called Task Force 373 and the man-hunting it undertook before the war logs were released. Since then, however, alarming details have emerged about their previously secret activities.

Some 200 files contained in the war logs reveal that Task Force 373 was a US special forces unit operating with a 'kill or capture' list of supposed Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders, which reportedly numbered well over 2,000 people.

Reid, who has lived and worked in Afghanistan, said that while it is technically "not a violation of war to have a list like this, it probably should be".

Of the incident reports where Task Force 373 is noted, more than half of them describe 'capture/kill' efforts, particularly in the Nangahar provinces near the border with northern Pakistan. But successful captures were not the only outcome of these operations - children and Afghan police officers were also killed. These deaths reportedly resulted in angry villagers protesting and even attacking US-led military forces.

One war log report, which was prefaced by a special note stating "the knowledge that TF-373 conducted a HIMARS strike must be kept protected," told of a rocket attack on June 17, 2007 in the Khelof province. It was ostensibly intended to kill an alleged member of al-Qaeda, but instead resulted in the immediate deaths of six children in a madrassa (Islamic school). A seventh child died later from wounds suffered in the attack.

In a reported coordination between Akram Khapalwak, the governor of Paktika, and the US military to develop "talking points," the log noted that the governor "stressed this could've been prevented had the people exposed the presence of insurgents in the area". Further, analysis of the logs, however, does not uncover any evidence that there were members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban in the school where the children died, which undermines military claims that the Taliban were purportedly using the children as shields.

Another bombing carried out by the Task Force targeted a house in the village of Laswanday, just six miles away from the site of the madrassa bombing. Once again, civilians - four men, one woman and a girl - were killed, while not one "enemy insurgent" was killed or captured.

Changes in policy?

Pentagon and White House officials claimed on July 26 that the war logs did not detail any civilian killings since last December and therefore did not reflect the major shift in NATO and US military policy that had taken place at the same time.

The purported aim of that shift was to reduce civilian atrocities.

But these claims were dramatically undermined on the same day when at least 39 civilians were killed in the Sangin District.

Afghan civilians reported that in the midst of intense fighting between occupying forces and the Taliban, civilians retreated to Rigi, a remote village with just a handful of homes. But shortly after, the village was rocked by airstrikes that reportedly caused dozens of civilian casualties.

Future prospects?

Reid has criticized NATO for being reactionary rather than adopting a more proactive approach with transparent investigations into civilian deaths. But there are signs that such criticisms have been heeded in recent weeks as US army prosecutors revealed that four US soldiers are being prosecuted for alleged war crimes committed between January and May of this year.

The soldiers have been accused of randomly killing Afghan civilians in a premeditated fashion, mutilating their bodies and collecting their fingers for sport. The case is widely regarded as the worst officially acknowledged war crime by members of the US military.

What the future will portend in occupied Afghanistan, in terms of increased accountability and prevention of war crimes and civilian killings will arguably depend to a large extent on the manner in which key White House and Pentagon policy makers respond to the next round of leaks. Indeed, not only are additional documents related to Afghanistan due to be released by Wikileaks, but another leak on Iraq is currently being redacted in London and scheduled to be publicly revealed on October 18.

Members of the human rights community are hoping that these leaks will be greeted with greater levels of accountability and respect for the lives and safety of Afghan civilians.

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