Accountability in Afghanistan

Human Rights Watch's Rachel Reid is entirely correct when she said that "accountability is not just something you do when you are caught". Yet the leaked US military files have the potential to do just this.

Reading the files, what struck me was the lack of surprises. All the documents did was provide an official narrative to what has already been reported (and often vigorously denied) over the past nine years. High civilian casualties, rampant corruption and incompetency within the Afghan government and security forces, the Janus-nature of Pakistan's involvement in the conflict, Iran's less than helpful role, the tactical impact of advanced drone technology and low-tech IEDs - all of which have been reported on before.

What has changed is that the self-sacrifice of Bradley Manning has forced the official light of truth into the shadowy corners of the war, a gesture that could result in more honest reporting in future. Both Obama and Cameron inherited wars initiated by others. This could give them the political capital to insist on far higher standards of military transparency in future. As Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, put it "however illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan".

So what needs to change? As I have already written, the US-led war in Afghanistan must make a greater effort to effectively track civilian casualties and in particular those caused by "blue on white" attacks. The US has described the release of the papers as "irresponsible" but it strikes me that an incident-reporting system that tracks the numbers of chickens killed in a village raid must be able to provide the basis for a dignified measure of counting the human cost of the war.

Although such estimates will never be completely reliable, a genuine intent to value the lives of Afghan civilians, which goes beyond flat-out denials and payments of £1,500 per civilian killed, could underpin our reasons for being in the country far better than any international conference.

A proper audit of Afghan civilian deaths would have to involve neutral monitors to verify and fact check fatal engagements, not an easy task considering the rapidly increasing crescendo of violence in the country.

The impact of airstrikes in particular needs to be examined, as an incident last Friday showed. A helicopter attack in Helmand was reported by the BBC to have killed as many as 45 civilians despite an initial Nato investigation that showed "no indication of such casualties". Channel 4 News reported on a separate incident where Nato troops reported on a battle in which 30 Taliban fighters were killed, yet a later UN investigation uncovered the deaths of some 90 civilians.

The British government - which, let us not forget, is a significant partner in the Afghan adventure - should look to expand the mandate of the United Nations assistance mission to Afghanistan (Unama) to cover independent tracking of civilian deaths. Currently Unama "recognises the critical importance of monitoring and co-ordination of efforts to protect civilians and support wider human rights, in particular the rights of women and children", but does not consider it a core priority.

Prioritizing the tracking of casualties could in effect make a reverse body-count one of the strategic aims of the conflict, turning the war into a battle between the Taliban and the Nato coalition to see who can best avoid killing civilians.

The results of such independent monitoring could provide an honest and visceral account of the real dynamics of what the Guardian has referred to as the "true Afghan war". The BBC's recent effort to track the results of drone and militant attacks in the Pakistan tribal areas could be a barometer for how the war is developing.

Wikileaks's Julian Assange describes the documents as revealing the numerous small deadly events that define the conflict, speaking of the "everyday squalor of war". Until we create a legitimate and effective tracking of the civilian deaths of the conflict, we can never claim to understand the reality of our presence in Afghanistan.