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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Afghanistan papers put Wikileaks, maybe more, centre stage

Will we see take-up here of the merits of the war in an election campaign dubbed last week as "the Battle of the Bland"? Given Australia's support, heightened by the fact 17 Australian soldiers have been killed, six in a little over a month and that Julian Assange of Wikileaks is one of our own, the leak of 75000 classified Afghanistan documents (with more to come) should mean Afghanistan receives more attention during the  campaign than what we have had so far - a virtual one line unity ticket that "we're there to see the mission" and "the just cause" through. Political leaders here are probably just relieved Assange has moved off home turf to a bigger canvas. And will an interest in whistleblowing generally heighten awareness of the issue of a pardon for Allan Kessing - including some questions of Transport Minister Albanese - in light of the Director of Public Prosecutions advice against, as reported by Chris Merritt in The Australian last Friday?

Debate, as foreshadowed in this article in The Independent, about the rights and wrongs of the Afghanistan leak and Wikileaks publication of the documents will go on for years.This is a whistleblow outside any legal framework, and raises the issue of criminal liability for whoever was involved. The alleged US source of the last big leak to Wikileaks, of a video of the gunning down of civilians in Baghdad, is facing 52 years in prison.

The US says the disclosures potentially put national security at risk and endangers lives, but has tried to hose it down by saying there is nothing new, and that things have changed in recent months. Daniel Ellsberg puts it on a par with his leak of the Pentagon papers during the Vietnam war.

In the court of public opinion we will hear a lot about the public interest and the right to know generally the details of a war involving loss of life and billions of dollars, about what is happening on the ground, and the state of the government NATO forces support. And specifically about civilian casualties not previously revealed, and any lies, deceptions and cover up that may have been involved for example concerning Pakistani collusion with Taliban forces. On the other hand you can't run a war or any system where anyone can reveal whatever they like. The questions-ethical as much as legal, and never asked in the Kessing case-come down to whether disclosure causes real harm to an identifiable public interest such as the protection of national security that is not outweighed by the public interest (benefit to the community as a whole) in disclosure.

However as Patrick Cockburn observes, in the Afghanistan documents
"few secrets have actually been revealed... Afghans know all too well that US-led death squads have long been arbitrarily killing suspected Taliban, along with anybody else who got in their way. And "The fact that more Afghan civilians were being gunned down at checkpoints or killed by ill-directed air strikes than was officially admitted will come as no surprise to Afghans who have been at the receiving end of coalition firepower. ....some of the incidents now go a long way to explaining why so many ordinary Afghans are driven into the hands of the Taliban. For instance, in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, a report was made on 11 October 2009 about soldiers and police mistreating local people who refused to cooperate in a search. A district police chief raped a 16-year-old girl and when a civilian protested, the police chief ordered his bodyguard to shoot him. The bodyguard refused and was himself killed by the police chief. Corruption is so pervasive that a substantial part of the income of poor villagers is spent bribing officials....
His assessment:
The "Afghan Files" explain why the Kabul government is getting weaker, despite the fact that the US now has over 90,000 troops fighting 28,000 Taliban at a cost of $300bn (£190bn) over the last nine years. And they will make it still harder in future for the US and British governments to explain why they are fighting to preserve an Afghan government so rotten with corruption and brutally uncaring towards its own people.
 The Guardian (among others) has plenty of detail. This analysis by Andrew Exum an expert on Afghanistan, in the New York Times is also worth a read.

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