Wikileaks: a new journal of the disasters in Afghanistan

Nothing beats raw material for its capacity to home in on truth. These logs are unvarnished and brutal, and it will take some time to digest in full their implications. They describe the reality of the Afghan war, including, apparently, the widespread and increasing use of targeted killings.

In particular, the logs describe the efforts of a secret commando unit, Task Force 373, with its "joint prioritised effects list" of hundreds of senior targets, and its efforts to assassinate the enemy. Contrary to the impression that governments seek to promote, these operations are often unsuccessful and sometimes result in the killing of friendly forces and civilians.

One of the leaked logs, for example, describes an incident on the night of 11 June 2007, as a joint night operation at night between Coalition Forces and Afghan Security forces hunted a Taliban commander called Qarl Ur-Rahmanin, in a valley near Jalalabad. The log describes how Task Force 373's efforts led to the death of seven friendly Afghan police officers, catalysing local resentment.

This might be said to be a fact of modern warfare, yet the reality is that no great progress seems to have been made over the past century and half. Take a trip to the Tricycle Theatre to see its current production of The Great Game, if you need a reminder. It opens with a grim, timely account of the 1842 Kabul retreat by a large contingent of British soldiers, based on Lady Sale's Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan, published by John Murray in 1843.

The diary is available on the web, and many of the entries are depressingly similar to the logs. Compare her entry for 30 September 1841 with the account of the events of 11 June 2007:

"Last night as the cavalry videttes went their rounds at Siah Sung, a party of men rushed out of a cave and fired at them; some were taken prisoners; part of them were Affghans, but four were Hindostanees, and one of them was a Chuprassy of Capt Bygrave, who endeavoured to excuse himself by saying, he fired at the party supposing them to be Affghans, but could give no reason for being there himself."

Friendly fire, civilian deaths – so what has changed in Afghanistan since then? We now have extensive international rules on the conduct of armed conflict, incorporated into the Security Council resolutions that govern the operations of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, as it is formally known. The latest of these – resolution 917 adopted in March 2010 – calls for "full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and international humanitarian law throughout Afghanistan". The logs indicate that these rules do not seem to have brought much by way of added protection to the local population.

Under these international rules, targeted killings may be permitted in the armed conflict in Afghanistan, provided they are used against individuals who are directly involved in combat. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Professor Philip Alston, has raised concerns that targeted killings "are increasingly being used far from any battle zone". These newly available logs underscore this expression of concern, not least since they refer to the use of unmanned drones, including Predators, on a significant scale, and the deaths of a great number of civilians. Alston has alerted us to the use of targeted killings "in a framework which may well violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law".

That seems like understatement.

Philippe Sands QC, a barrister in the Matrix Chambers and a professor of international law at University College London.