Thursday, 29 July 2010

Black Propaganda

I refrain from doing book reviews. Not that I do not have books to review - 100 plus on Afghanistan and Iraq alone - but I lack confidence in my critical skills and impartiality. Because of recent events though I am going to mention a book that I think deserves mention.

Snake Bite was written by an imbed journalist It grows from his concerns at a single action early in his stay from The Sunday Times and is an account of time spent with a joint US and UK force mentoring the Afghan National Army. His doubts as to the value of operations reads:
The attack had been a diversion, a feint as they call it. The aim was to deceive the Taliban into believing that our main attack would come from the South and South-West; the same direction from which the Soviets had attacked twenty-four years ago. As we had withdrawn, the real attack came in from the North. Hundreds of American paratroopers were dropped by helicopter.
The plan called for the US to surround and beat the Taliban on the outskirts of the town. If all went well their enemy would realise it was out-gunned and overwhelmed and then flee. We would then enter and secure the town with the Afghan National Army. The operation would be announced to the world as an Afghan success. The Americans told us the aim was not just a tactical win but an Information Operations win - a IO Victory.
What had happened would have been a public relations disaster. It almost was. Except that, at the time, rather lost in my own personal drama, I hadn't done a great job in collecting the facts. I was to report that two civilians were killed in the fight. But, reporting on the front line in a fast-paced environment, I didn't really have the chance to get the full story. I later discovered that that many more innocent people were killed, including the two children. As the operation unfolded my under estimate of the numbers of civilians killed seemed to become the official word. Right up to Kabul and up the command chain the word was given out: just two civilians died in the operation to recapture Musa Qala.
So, if more people had read Snake Bite what we now know from the WarLogs would have been common knowledge a long while ago - the book was published in 2009. Grey ponders who was responsible for all the bloodshed and what purpose did it serve? He sees that the battle is not just for the hearts and minds of Afghans but between soldiers and spies, between commanders in the field and officials in Whitehall and between allies sharply divided by purpose.

We have had various reasons advanced as to why we went into that sorry place. From defending the streets of London to stopping Taliban pulling out the toe nails of little girls because they wore nail varnish by way of stopping the evils of the drug trade. I will be generous and accept these were genuinely held at the time even though they are now being described as otherwise. I know well that war is hell but I question the morality of our 'leaders' when high ideals were claimed for a programme of mass misinformation, misleading statements and downright lies. We hear much of the evils of the Taliban but what of our own conduct? All is fair in love and war? We have implanted our own cancer. And for what - does anyone really believe that whatever we claim to have achieved when we do eventually withdraw will be anything permanent?

If the details circulated by wikileaks cause any rethink on our tactics and policies, they will be worth it. I take the point that lives are put at risk but not that anything in those papers will, solely and in isolation, be responsible. The informants were paid and will not have been able to disguise any new-found wealth. The Taliban knew very well who was talking with American and British soldiers and did not wait for any Old Bailey verdict to act on that knowledge. The information would have been made available to any anyone planning an operation and therefore become known to our Afghan 'allies'. The same allies who turn upon us would have been told "don't shoot Ali Rashid in such and such a compound - he is an informant" What wikileaks did was spread the news a little further. Any correction arising must be good.

Not much of a review I suppose but if the intention of a review is to draw wider attention to something written - I have achieved my aim.

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