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Europeans Debate Leaked Afghanistan War Logs

European media are divided over the significance of the leaked Pentagon documents, but many are urging the West to cut and run from Afghanistan.

by
Soeren Kern

Bio

July 29, 2010 - 12:20 am

The leaking of a massive cache of classified Pentagon documents on the war in Afghanistan has been on the front pages of newspapers and magazines across Europe. Although there have been many sensational headlines, the overall media reaction in Europe has been surprisingly subdued, especially considering that European media elites rarely miss an opportunity to criticize the United States.

To be sure, many European newspapers and magazines have published stories with strong anti-American undertones, and some European commentators are saying the leaked documents show that the United States is guilty of war crimes in Afghanistan.

But most European media outlets concede that the war logs contain few surprises, and commentators across the continent are divided over the actual significance of the documents. In any case, although European public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the Afghan war, the leaked documents are unlikely to cause America’s main European allies in Afghanistan to cut and run, as many European commentators are proposing.

What follows is a brief selection of media commentary from some of America’s main European allies in Afghanistan.

In Britain, the left-wing Guardian newspaper, in an opinion article titled “A History of Folly, From the Trojan Horse to Afghanistan“, writes that “by recording failure in meticulous detail, the leaked war logs bear devastating witness to our incompetence. … The logs are shot through with the arrogance of the hi-tech warrior and the glee taken in murdering leaders from the air. If enough Taliban are killed, says the machine, the enemy must surely run out of men.”

The Economist magazine, in an opinion article titled “Afghanistan War Logs: At Least They Know the War Isn’t Going Well,” writes: “What the documents show is that the military’s internal intelligence doesn’t make the war look any better than it looks to the press and other outsiders. This will likely widen the gap between the necessarily optimistic official pronouncements of military commanders and the Obama administration, and the public’s assumptions about what those officials are telling each other in private. In other words, it’s likely to create an increased impression of hypocrisy on the part of officials who continue to proclaim that the war is going well and that its challenges are manageable.”

The business daily Financial Times, in an article titled “Leaked Files Raise Fresh Doubts on War” writes that there are “clear signs that the documents, while not strikingly revelatory, could fuel doubts on Capitol Hill and elsewhere about whether Pakistan or Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan can ever become reliable partners for the U.S.”

The left-wing tabloid Daily Mirror, in a commentary piece titled “WikiLeaks Exposes the Brutal Truth on Afghanistan,” writes: “Julian Assange is an oddball but he deserves a medal for exposing what’s really happening in Afghanistan. The 90,000 U.S. secret documents explode any lingering belief that modern warfare is like a giant computer game, smart bombs zapping the baddies. War is a dirty, nasty, grisly and degrading confrontation. … A deadline must be set to bring home British forces from an unwinnable £4billion mission. Not 2014 or 15 but the end of next year, when the Canadians go, or 2012 at the latest.”

The center-right tabloid Daily Mail, in an article titled “Washing the Dirty Linen of a Dirty Conflict in Public Could Actually Save Lives,” writes: “The only way forward is for President Obama to start a political process, involving the Taliban and its leader Mullah Omar, which gives our departure a figleaf of dignity. If he fails to do this, he will betray his responsibility to his own people, to his allies and especially Britain, and to the Afghans. … If we wait for military success before starting a political negotiation, a lot more good people will die uselessly. It is time to talk, and start packing.”

Many media outlets accuse the United States of covering up civilian deaths in Afghanistan. The Guardian, in an article titled “How U.S. Marines Sanitized Record of Bloodbath,” writes that “war logs show how Marines gave cleaned up accounts of incident in which they killed 19 civilians.”

The center-right Daily Telegraph, in an article titled “Wikileaks Afghanistan: Suggestions U.S. Tried to Cover up Civilian Casualties,” says “fresh evidence suggesting that U.S.-led forces attempted to cover up civilian casualties in Afghanistan has emerged through leaked military documents.”

In Ireland, the center-left Irish Times, in an article titled “A Dire Litany of Botched Raids, Civilian Deaths and Mayhem,” writes: “The exposé of brutality and corruption will not impress U.S. taxpayers or humanitarians.” It says: “In terms of long-term fallout, the most damaging aspect of yesterday’s leak was the extent to which it cleared the fog of war to reveal a toll of civilian deaths and injuries much greater than what had previously been made known to the public.”

In Germany, the center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung, in a commentary titled “So Many Documents, So Few Answers,” writes: “The publication of the documents represents a watershed in the Internet age. The Web has become a threat for nations at war because secret information is critical for the success or failure of a conflict. Anyone who reveals a secret and can distribute such a gigantic volume of logs can influence the war. One can approve or disapprove of that, but one cannot ignore it. … The logs have the potential to shatter any remaining hope for a military and political success in Afghanistan. They will fan public resistance against the war particularly in the U.S., four months ahead of midterm elections. But Afghanistan’s true dilemma will not be explained by the war logs, and the U.S. and its 45 allies still have not understood it: Why does Afghanistan keep rejecting any peaceful order? So many documents. So few answers.”

From another Süddeutsche article titled “Kill and Let Kill”: “Wikileaks has cast the most secret operations in Afghanistan into full view. But the German government is reluctant to give an answer: What contribution has Germany made to the executions carried out by U.S. Special Forces?”

The left-wing newsmagazine Spiegel, in an article titled “The Helpless Germans: War Logs Illustrate Lack of Progress in Bundeswehr Deployment,” writes: “The war logs obtained by WikiLeaks depict a situation in northern Afghanistan that is far worse than it is depicted in the reports German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives to parliament. They also show even though the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, have been present since 2002, they have made little progress in Afghanistan. … They do show how poorly prepared Germany and its military were when they entered the Afghanistan war — and why their mission will likely remain unfulfilled in the end. The German army was clueless and naïve when it stumbled into the conflict. The Germans had expected that the relatively calm northern provinces where their soldiers were stationed would remain peaceful. Moreover, they believed their reconstruction teams would provide a model for the other allies on how best to help this country ravaged by civil war. … The numbers also illustrate something else as well: How little the Germans have achieved.”

The center-left Berliner Zeitung, in an editorial titled “Disclosure 75,000 Times,” believes the leaks are part of a conspiracy concocted by the U.S. government itself. The newspaper writes: “One can draw two conclusions from the publication of the war logs: A) We need time, more time than has so far been stated publicly, to get to a handle on Afghanistan. So we will need to stay there longer, with even more troops. B) We have not succeeded so far. So we will not succeed in the years to come. So we should leave as soon as possible. … It might be that the reports have found their way into the public arena at this point in time in order to promote the first conclusion. Maybe the source feeding Wikileaks is not as far removed from the American government as we assume. Maybe Wikileaks is being used to create a climate in which the anticipated withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan can be reversed.”

The Financial Times Deutschland, in an editorial titled “Nothing New in Afghanistan,” writes: “President Obama and the German government now face the prospect of even stronger public opposition to the war following the publication of these gruesome and apparently authentic descriptions from the front line that show the fighting from its dirtiest side. This public reaction might be understandable, and Wikileaks might even have desired it to be so. But the facts would not justify it. … Viewed soberly, the information extracted by journalists from this mass of documents provides no reason for a new assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. Apart from some information about the role of Pakistan, the logs have not revealed anything decisively new. For the most part they document the often terrible but unsurprising details of individual operations. … The basic facts were already known. It will not have escaped the U.S. or German public that military operations in Afghanistan are not running optimally, to put it mildly. … The publication by Wikileaks may serve to show the world the horrors of the Afghan war. But it does not qualify as an argument against the mission.”

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in an editorial titled “Secret Documents, Serious Situation,” writes: “These documents do not warrant a completely new assessment. We already knew that the situation in Afghanistan is serious. But the information that the Taliban have access to portable anti-aircraft missiles gives cause for concern. Such weapons contributed to the victory of the mujahideen against the Soviet troops in the 1980s. But one should not make any knee-jerk comparisons here. It is also worrying if the Pakistani intelligence service ISI is continuing to support the Taliban and other extremist Islamic groups. But the logs do not amount to conclusive evidence. This begs the question whether the public interest justifies such a massive betrayal of secrets.”

In France, the left-wing Le Monde, in an editorial titled “Afghanistan, Irak: The Terrible Legacy of Mr Bush,” writes: “Almost every day, the news points to the tragedy that represents the two wars inherited from the Bush era: Afghanistan and Iraq. … The leaks cover a period which ends at the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House in January 2009. There is no reason to believe that the situation has fundamentally changed since. … President George W Bush never gave priority to Afghanistan. Immediately after the Taliban were driven out of Kabul — where they were harboring Al-Qaeda — in 2002, he devoted all his attention to Iraq, which posed no threat to the United States. In Iraq, he wanted a regime change for the entire Middle East. When he should have been concentrating on Afghanistan, with massive civilian assistance, Bush went to war in Iraq. He was wrong to ignore a Taliban insurgency that has since revived and has been steadily gaining ground. We have not yet finished paying for the consequences of this major strategic error.”

In another article titled “Wikileaks Confirms the Risk of a Military Fiasco in Afghanistan,” Le Monde writes: “The United States must better communicate with its allies. At the moment, as the reports released by Wikileaks illustrate, Americans are almost all alone, the Allies did not have a say.”

In Spain, the left-wing newspaper El País, in an article titled “The Secrets of a Failed War,” writes: “The Pentagon documents on Afghanistan, a collection of thousands of secret documents, corroborate the more pessimistic view of this war and provide evidence of  Pakistan’s suspicious behavior. The documents will surely exacerbate doubts among the public in the U.S. and Europe about the necessity of this conflict. But it is still too early to say whether the leaks will force a significant change in the current NATO strategy.”

In an editorial titled “The Power of Information,” El País writes: “The leak is a terrible propaganda setback for the Obama administration. Although the leaked documents do not directly involve Obama’s term in office, they do very seriously affect all the problems posed by this war, underlined and amplified with a broadcast so loud. The avalanche of information about the bad conduct of the war in Afghanistan will produce political effects that may hasten the departure of the troops or at least require a total rethinking of the strategy followed so far.”

Soeren Kern is Senior Analyst for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.
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