The publication of over 90,000 secret US military documents by the Internet platform Wikileaks has ignited debate worldwide about the war in Afghanistan. Although the documents reveal hardly any new facts, they alter our perception of modern warfare. A commentary by Britta Petersen
There are stories that achieve importance not by what they tell, but rather how and when they tell it. The "Afghan War Diary", recently published by the Internet platform Wikileaks, is such a story.
In the case of war, the words of the philosopher George Berkeley are particularly applicable: "Existence is perception" (Latin: Esse est percipi). What we do not perceive simply does not exist in our world. It is therefore the goal of all war propaganda to make certain facts disappear.
It has always been imperative for those conducting wars to keep certain events out of the public sphere; such is the effect of classifying a document as "top secret". A modern war – even one for which there are good, humanitarian grounds – is still a war; and that means having to kill people that have been identified as the enemy. Killing the enemy usually entails dehumanizing them first, and this process, in turn, also dehumanizes those doing the killing.
This concept has always been a difficult one to bear, and this is why it has in the past been justified by pathos and patriotism.
The dilemma of modern war
When these means are no longer available, however, concealment remains the only recourse. Can a democratic state expect approval for sending its citizens to war for the sake of geopolitical advantages and resources? Can dehumanization be justified in the name of humanism?
This irreconcilable dilemma underlies modern warfare. And as long as we do not attempt to answer these questions, then the old journalistic adage applies: "The first victim of war is the truth."
Brutal, forgotten stories
Wikileaks wrests the dirty truth of war back from the dark recesses of our mind where it was intentionally consigned to forgetfulness. I intentionally use the word "forgetfulness" because one can only forget what one once knew. Of course, we all know what war means, but we don't want to acknowledge it, especially when we read the daily news reports about the civilian casualties caused by the actions of NATO troops or by suicide attacks on mosques and ISAF convoys. In any case, we certainly don't want to know about the background stories.
And these are the stories now being told by Wikileaks. It is not as if these stories haven't been told before. Anyone who has followed events in Afghanistan over the past few years will have read about them.
There is the story of the wedding party in Nangarhar that was bombed, resulting in the obliteration of an entire family; or that of the soldier who lost his leg in Urusgan, returned home traumatized, and to this day is still awaiting recognition for his sacrifices.
There is the story of the Commissioner for Women in Kandahar, who was shot down right outside her own front door; the story of the Governor of Ghazni, who was torn to bits by a bomb as he prayed in a mosque for a recently deceased person; and the story of a taxi driver arrested at a roadblock in Kabul and thrown in the military prison at Bagram, only to be declared innocent and released years later, broken by repeated torture.
"Drowning in data without visibility"
The list of known stories goes on forever. So what differentiates these known stories from the material in the Afghan War Diary? Is it perhaps the sheer volume of stories it contains that makes the Afghan War Diary so unbearable? Do they not conjure up images of trenches, night-time bombing raids, and "agent orange"? In short, is it that the Afghan War Diary confronts us with all the horrors of war in our collective unconsciousness?
"The only new fact is the confirmation of the rumours that the Taliban actually does possess heat-seeking missiles and that they have deployed them against NATO planes," writes the Afghanistan expert Thomas Ruttig of "Afghan Analysts Network" with respect to the Wikileaks documents. This is probably the case, but these are simply details that will one day help war historians put together a consistent story.
Until then, "we are drowning in data without visibility," as one reader aptly remarked in the British newspaper The Guardian, which was sent the 92,000 documents at the same time as the New York Times and Der Spiegel.
Hardly any new facts
Much of what the above-named media wrote about the Afghan War Diary is redundant, old or banal. Der Spiegel, for instance, writes that the collection of documents shows that the "war in the north of the country, where the German troops are stationed, is becoming increasingly dangerous."
The quote is revealing, as "dangerous" is a purely subjective description. In fact, one can turn to any press archive and read that insurgent activity in the north began to increase during this period.
Der Spiegel also writes that "only in late 2005 and early 2006 (…) did resistance form against the international troops in the country." Anyone who spent time in Afghanistan during this period or has followed the course of the war since 2001 as a journalist knows this and has written about it.
Equally unsurprising is the outcry from Pakistan at the fact that the documents once more "revealed" that the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, is working with the Taliban leadership (the so-called Quetta Shura) and that retired intelligence agency officers have links with the Haqqani network, which maintains contacts with the al-Qaida terrorist organization.
These are just some of the facts that everyone in this country knows, but does not say out loud because it is a matter of national defence strategy. As the journalist Khaled Ahmed recently wrote in the Friday Times, "Everyone in Pakistan knows that for the USA, what is going on in Afghanistan is a war against terrorism, while for Pakistan, it is a war against India."
New definition of "war crimes"
So what remains from the Afghan War Diary? We will only really know in historical retrospect. Presumably, it forms the end of a long chain of previous reports on the war in Afghanistan. In any case, it seems to have changed our perspective on the war, and that is a good thing.
For example, the political scientist Charli Carpenter has proposed in the International Herald Tribune that it is high time to come up with a new definition of war crimes, because the existing concept does not provide a suitable legal framework to deal with the large number of unintentional civilian deaths caused by drone attacks and "house searches" in Afghanistan. She also correctly points out that the heavily criticised practice of "targeted killings" of enemies constitutes an improvement on the "razing of entire cities to the ground."
If the publication by Wikileaks makes a contribution to how a modern society honestly comes to grips with what it means to conduct a war in this day and age, then a great deal has been accomplished.
© Qantara.de 2010
Britta Petersen has been head of the Lahore office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 1 July 2010. Prior to that she spent five years as an author and international reporter in New Delhi. As the founder of the Initiative Freie Presse e.V. (IFP, English: Free Press Initiative), she worked in Kabul from 2003 to 2005. She was awarded the Leipzig Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media in 2005 for her work with young Afghan journalists.
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de 2010