WikiLeaks helps the Taliban to hunt an honest man

Last weekend, an Afghan friend who lives in Kabul was in Dubai for a short break to get away from the Taliban death threats which he has been receiving since the leaked war logs revealed he was working with the US military.

The WikiLeaks affair has dropped quickly from the global news agenda. But the fallout continues in ways which don't receive much attention. Last weekend, an Afghan friend who lives in Kabul was in Dubai for a short break to get away from the Taliban death threats which he has been receiving regularly ever since the leaked war logs revealed some of the projects he was working on with the US military.

I won't elaborate on what he does. He is an educated man who believes in a modern and moderate state. He has a wife, two small children and elderly parents to support. He is convinced that the publication of thousands of documents exposed him because he has never had such security problems before. During the first couple of phone calls, the caller told him to quit his job. "Why do you work with the foreign infidels? Join the jihad with us."

The second phone call was more threatening. "We know where you work and what your car looks like," the man said, then gave a detailed description of his vehicle. My friend moved his office and varies his route and schedule when he goes to work. Working for the US military is not his first choice but job opportunities are so few in Afghanistan you earn your money where you can. In the last phone call the man was more explicit. "Next time we see you, you will be killed."

Now every time a car pulls up next to him at a traffic light my friend wonders if this is the end. That civilians are bearing the brunt of the war is finally being studied carefully. This week, two organisations, the United Nations and the respected Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, released reports which broadly said the same thing. Civilian casualties have risen in the first half of 2010 anywhere from 6 to 30 per cent compared to the same period last year.

What is interesting is who is responsible for the killings. Of the 1,325 civilian deaths recorded by the Afghan human rights group, 23 per cent were attributed to Nato or Afghan government forces. The Taliban and their allies were responsible for 68 per cent of the deaths. The UN study claimed the civilian death toll was slightly lower at 1,271 with anti-government forces blamed for 76 per cent of the casualties.

Chronicling precise figures is extremely difficult because most parts of the country are inaccessible. Crucially, both studies suggested that the proportion of deaths attributed to Nato and Afghan government forces were down compared to last year because of fewer air strikes. This is important because clumsy air strikes on innocent villages and unfair raids on their houses has been driving a lot of Afghans to pick up arms on behalf of insurgents.

The policy of Gen Stanley McChrystal, the former head of US and Nato command who issued a directive in July 2009 restricting the use of air power, may be bearing fruit. The reaction of his successor Gen David Petraeus was interesting in the wake of the WikiLeaks scandal. He said absolutely nothing, then on August 4 publicised a directive to his commanders in the field that they must "redouble" efforts to protect civilians in battle.

This despite months of grumbling from some quarters that new restrictions were putting American lives at risk. Insurgents sometimes use houses or people as shields and Nato soldiers are held to a standard their enemies do not recognise. But the directives are part of the counter-insurgency strategy, the core of which says the population must be protected and insurgents isolated. The fact that the Taliban are killing more people than Nato forces isn't likely to make my Afghan friend feel any better. But the counter-insurgency strategy may be the right one in the absence of any better choices.

Nato's generals must be hoping insurgents will overplay their hand and Afghans will tire of the suicide bombings and roadside mines which affect them disproportionately. Gen Petraeus will have to hold his nerve against enormous political pressure from Washington and various European capitals to give up on what appears to be a lost cause and start bringing home soldiers. For my friend who knows the insurgents are waiting for a chance to kill him, it would be the very worst outcome.