The Sun newspaper reports today that a British colonel faces possible charges under section one of the Official Secrets Act for leaking sensitive details of civilian casualties in Afghanistan to a woman from a human rights group.
Lt Col Owen McNally, who has been seconded from his regiment for a year to work with NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, is apparently on his way back to London under guard where he will be questioned by detectives from the Metropolitan Police.
From the few facts that have been made public it would appear that the details being referred to are contained in a report published last September by Human Rights Watch (see here for more information on Rachel Reid, his alleged contact at HRW and here for a strong rebuttal statement from Ms Reid. ).
Their report, Troops in Contact: Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan, openly acknowledges that NATO and other military officials, particularly from the USA, were contacted. "Human Rights Watch is appreciative of the numerous interviews granted by US and NATO military and civilian officials. In particular we would like to thank the members of the Judge Advocate General Corps, NATO headquarters, Kabul; US military personnel at Bagram Air Base; military planners at the Combined Air Operations Center, Doha; and the NATO Media Operations Center, Brussels."
The report noted a steep increase in the number of civilians killed by US airstrikes and was published just days after dozens of civilians in Azizabad in the west of the country were killed in yet another disastrous bombing (see my previous blog on this subject). Thus in 2006 116 civilians were killed in 13 bombings by Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF airstrikes. In 2007 this figure had risen to 321 deaths in 22 bombings. And in the first seven months of 2008, excluding Azizabad, 119 civilians had been killed in 12 airstrikes.
However, what was striking about the HRW report is that it contains very detailed information about some of the incidents in which civilians were killed in Afghanistan. For example, it notes: "In one district, a senior British commander asked US Special Operations Forces to leave his district due to the mounting civilian casualties caused when the US repeatedly called in airstrikes to rescue small numbers of special forces during firefights with insurgent forces."
This is, to say the least, an unusual level of detail and it is surprising that the information was handed over voluntarily by the military authorities. Not least because it highlights possible tensions between NATO and US commanders over the use of close aerial support.
This point was reinforced at the end of January this year when NATO decided to publish its own civilian casualty figures. According to NATO spokesman James Appathurai, of more than 1,000 civilians killed last year in Afghanistan, less than 100 were killed by NATO-led forces. He also said that there was no information on civilian deaths for previous years because there was no reliable way of collating them. "We put in a new tracking system last year. Before that we weren't frankly confident in our ability to judge it accurately. You have to understand this is a country where there are no birth certificates, there are no death certificates, people are buried very quickly and this is often in remote areas," he said.
Clearly there is more to this than meets the eye.