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Daily View: US criticism of British forces

Clare Spencer | 10:15 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010

British troops preparing for operation


Commentators discuss the latest Wikileaks revelations of US diplomatic cables describing Afghan and US criticism of UK soldiers' failure to impose security and engage with Afghans.

Britain's former special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Sherard Cowper-Coles says in the Guardian that he was aware of these criticisms at the time but, he says, that they need to be seen in context:

"The real tragedy about these telegrams is that they miss the point: that the entire western military effort in Afghanistan will in the end be for nothing unless it is part of a wider political strategy. Such a strategy should bring together all the internal parties - not just the Taliban - to a decades-old conflict, and systematically engage Afghanistan's neighbours in gradually stabilising the country, from which the whole of south-west Asia would benefit.
"In that broader strategic perspective, debating troop levels in Helmand is a bit like arguing over how much aspirin to give a cancer patient. Garrisoning the town of Sangin more efficiently may produce more relief from pain (or violence). But without action to treat the underlying disease (which is political, not military), such relief can be only local, and temporary."

The commander of the first battle group sent into Sangin Colonel Stuart Tootal argues on the Today programme that the comments are out-of-date:

"They reflect the situation before the middle of last year when resources got to the right level so there were frustrations and there were challenges.
"Some of the individual criticisms are clearly wrong. This idea that the British forces weren't ready to go and connect with the people - this is why very nearly 350 British soldiers have been killed because they are going out on patrol and face IEDs absolutely to protect and connect with the people."

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Labour MP Paul Flynn suggests in his blog that the Americans are in no place to criticise British forces' performance:

"Today's Wikileaks on Afghanistan will dishearten and anger the relatives of those British soldiers who fell in Helmand.
"The biting criticism of British soldiers from Karzai and the Americans will deepen their grief. Of course it's unfair and untrue. The Americans who undermined the work of our brave soldiers are now performing poorly in Sangin. We lost 99 soldiers there. The Americans are doomed to repeat the futile waste."

Other commentators look at how they think it has changed the world.

Jerome Taylor predicts in the Independent that Wikileaks will be virtually impossible to destroy:

"Even if America or Sweden eventually succeeds in arresting, charging and imprisoning Julian Assange, there is little his enemies can do to halt the brave new world of online whistle-blowing that he has created.
"Like Al Qa'ida - an organisation that the more acerbic US critics have compared Wikileaks to - Assange has spawned an idea, one which will now be copied, developed and franchised by volunteers all over the world. Even if the founding father is silenced, there is no putting the lid back on the Pandora's Box he has opened."

Professor of Journalism at the City University of New York Eric Alterman explains in the New York Times that the scale of the leaks, and the motive of the leaker sets this apart from leaks to the press in the past:

"[I]n the case of the WikiLeaks material, the trove of information is so enormous and contains so many stories of real import and/or prurient interest that there is no single narrative to control - nor any means to do so. The target is not any U.S. policy or even the U.S. government. It is secrecy itself.
"In this respect, the mainstream media institutions are actually playing a far more useful role than they have in many past cases - including, in particular, the run-up to the war in Iraq. The sheer size of the data drop, coupled with the lack of deadline pressure, allowed editors to present what would have been an unmanageable mountain of material in a careful, considered and (partially) contextualized manner."

Links in full

Sherard Cowper-Coles | Guardian | The Afghans simply want to know who will be in charge
BBC Today | Wikileaks: US criticised UK troops in Helmand
Paul Flynn | Gratitude
Jerome Taylor | Independent | Even without its founder, WikiLeaks will go on
Eric Alterman | New York Times | Do You Want to Know a (Top) Secret?

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