Winning Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

Perhaps the most disturbing narrative to emerge from the 92,000 documents leaked earlier this week by the WikiLeaks website on the Afghan war, and the most damaging to the coalition, implicates coalition troops in that most unpalatable of acts: war crimes.

As the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange claimed at a news conference in London this week, the documents reveal evidence of hundreds of civilian deaths in previously unreported incidents that might technically qualify as war crimes.

It is this that threatens to truly obliterate what vestiges of home-grown popular support for the war remain, particularly in the UK where such support has never occurred naturally but has been generated through the efforts of media outlets such as the Murdoch-owned tabloids and charities such as Help For Heroes.

Among UK popular opinion, the war itself remains a matter of questionable legitimacy, but support for serving troops has traveled a steep trajectory during the past four years and as such helped to buffer the erstwhile Labour government against a potentially fatal surge in anti-war feeling. In the end it was the economy that did for Labour, not the war in Afghanistan. The story of civilian deaths, potential war crimes and the shadowy picture of unaccountable trigger-happy servicemen painted by Assange – which is strongly emphasised in The Guardian's selection of what it says are 300 of the most notable WikiLeak reports – threatens to remove this already waning buffer.

For Assange and the Guardian, the defining conclusion or singular "truth" to be drawn from this classified material is the "everyday squalor" of war. This should not be news to many, and it is certainly not news to the forces fighting in Afghanistan or indeed for those individuals awaiting their homecoming, in whatever form this may eventually take. British Jingoism died in the Flanders fields and few right-minded individuals relish the war or the damage it metes out to all involved, civilians, soldiers, friends and relatives alike. Speak to relatives of UK serving soldiers and it is clear that, particularly among the younger generation, the war is a matter not merely of discomfort but in some instances evident embarrassment.

According to those on the ground in Afghanistan, however, there is a more useful narrative to be drawn from the leak and it is one borne out not only in the content of the reports, but in their style and indeed existence: the coalition forces, most importantly the US and British armed forces, are simply not cut out for insurgency warfare – not merely in Afghanistan but anywhere at all.

Many soldiers emphasize the exceptionality of the unreported civilian deaths in what is otherwise, they stress, a series of mundane internal reports. For the most part, the reports in fact underline the exceedingly high level of accountability that prevails at the lowest levels of the US and British forces, they argue. Report after report consistently details what most onlookers would perceive to be tediously minor details – standard warning shots, dead chickens, slight injuries including grazes and numbness in one hand, car doors accidentally taken off. According to soldiers on the ground, it is the culture and expectation of the British and US forces that incidents of the most trivial nature are logged, and that all operations are approached in a "surgical" manner.

But it is precisely this strong military culture of accountability that makes fighting an unaccountable force such as the Taliban almost impossible, say soldiers, especially amid the broader backdrop of near absolute impunity enjoyed and perpetuated by corrupt local Afghan officials. The Taliban fear no reprisals for getting it wrong, but the coalition forces do. It is an insurmountable asymmetry.

As the newly appointed Gen. David H Petraeus implies in a 24-point manifesto published in Kabul on July 27, this asymmetry should be deployed to the coalition's advantage: it is precisely because Afghanistan suffers from a general accountability vacuum at nearly every level of authority that the coalition forces must act as a responsible example and confront impunity where it arises.

"The Taliban are not the only enemy of the people. The people are also threatened by inadequate governance, corruption and abuse of power – the Taliban's best recruiters," Patreaus writes in the manifesto. But this psychological policy – which forms part of the overarching 'winning hearts and minds' stratagem – has already proved to be a major military disadvantage, as amply demonstrated this summer by the fiasco of so-called 'courageous restraint'.

Masterminded by the now disgraced Gen. Stanley McChrystal, 'courageous restraint' goes beyond the rules of engagement in order to ensure soldiers go to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties, even if this means putting troops in greater danger. The US hopes courageous restraint will address widespread Afghan resentment towards the coalition forces caused by the types of coalition-led casualties highlighted by the WikiLeak.

According to reports from the front line, however, the policy has often made it impossible for coalition forces to engage the enemy, putting troops in extreme danger. It is no coincidence that a growing number of the multiple troop fatalities and injuries occurring this summer have been caused by small arms fire: under courageous restraint troops are not always able to take offensive or even defensive action – and the Taliban know it. Indeed, it remains to be seen if courageous restraint will save many civilian lives since the strategy automatically transforms civilians, already used by the Taliban for cover, into an ever more valuable defense tool – a strategy they need defend to no-one.

In his manifesto, Patreaus seems not to remove but to tweak the policy, which he reportedly believes has not been implemented properly. But this is war by degree and definition and, as such, it is highly unlikely to succeed, troops say. Conventional wars against insurgent forces have only proved successful – as Britain's 1948-1960 coercive campaign in present-day Malaysia demonstrate – at the cost of major civilian casualties, they point out.

But this is rightly unacceptable to the democratically-governed populations watching at home, who wish neither for civilians to be massacred nor, perhaps more to the point, for their sons and husbands to return home as war criminals. The WikiLeaks evidence serves, for the most part, to highlight the strong level of care and accountability that governs military engagement, but it is a care and accountability that will ultimately prove the coalition's downfall.

As such, the WikiLeak affair in its entirety – insomuch as it represents the triumph of transparency, truth and the freedom of information for all, some argue – merely underlines once again the self-limiting nature of democracies and their inability to replicate themselves without transgressing the principles that define them.

But this fundamental dilemma will not end with WikiLeaks or the rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to the US-based Stratfor risk analysis concern, this week France has effectively declared a war of sorts on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a long-established North African militant group which in April kidnapped and last week murdered a French aid worker. Meanwhile, Al Shabaab, the Islamist rebel group which is thought to have links with al Qaeda, this month carried out what is believed to be its first suicide attacks outside its native Somalia, where it is doing its level best to overthrow the decrepit Western-backed Somali government.

There is no shortage of potential future Afghanistans of one kind or another. Assange says the course of the current war needs to change, and he is not alone in this view. As the UK's Conservative-Liberal coalition government undertakes its long-awaited military spending review, some soldiers hope and expect that Afghanistan will in the long-term force a full-scale transformation of the British armed forces and its war-fighting strategy and tactics. But it remains to be seen if the outcome will be to Assange's liking.

Michelle Price is a journalist at global finance and policy magazine The Banker, a Financial Times publication, where she is responsible for Asia coverage.