Thousands of secret military documents have been leaked, revealing details of incidents when civilians were killed by coalition troops in Afghanistan.
The enormous cache of documents contains more than 90,000 US records giving a blow-by-blow account of fighting between January 2004 and December 2009.
Whistleblowers’ website Wikileaks obtained the files and made them available to The Guardian newspaper as well as the New York Times and German weekly Der Spiegel.
The leaked information, which The Guardian splashed across 14 print pages this morning, includes references to scores of incidents involving British troops.
The documents also reveal the operations of a secret special forces unit which is allegedly responsible for the “kill or capture” of Taliban leaders.
According to the files, military reports from the field suggested there was also evidence that Pakistan and Iran were supporting the insurgency.
The files, entitled the Afghan War Diary 2004-2010, were described on Wikileaks today as an “extraordinary secret compendium of over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan”.
It stated that the reports were written by soldiers and intelligence officers, mainly describing military actions involving the US.
It added: “We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimisation process demanded by our source.
“After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.”
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange told the Guardian in a video interview that he believed “good journalism” should provoke controversy and highlighted the significance of the internet in enabling the world to see the full material.
“In this case it will show the true nature of this war, then the public from Afghanistan and other nations can see what’s really going on and take steps to address the problems,” he said.
“The significance of this material is both the over-arching context, that is it covers the entire war since 2004, and individual events which are also significant.”
Assange singled out US-based “assassination squads”, events where many people were killed at once and the role of Pakistan in the war.
He said the difference between historic high-profile American leaks such as Pentagon papers detailing the Vietnam War in the 1970s was the immediacy of access to raw material via the web.
Assange added: “This situation is different in that it’s not just more material and being pushed to a bigger audience and much sooner – everyone has the book, the whole lot at once – but rather that people around the world who are reading this are able to comment on and put it in context and understand the full situation.
“That’s not something that has previously occurred and that’s something that can only be brought about as a result of the internet.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “We have been unable to corroborate these claims in the short time available and it would be inappropriate to speculate on specific cases without further verification of the alleged actions.
“Reducing the risk to local civilians has always formed an essential part of planning for all military operations carried out by UK forces and we always do our utmost to ensure that we shield the civilian population from violence during the course of any military activity.
“We are deeply saddened by any civilian deaths or injuries but we particularly regret incidents where civilians are killed as a result of actions by International Forces.
“The MoD and Isaf have strict procedures, frequently updated in the light of experience, intended to both minimise the risk of casualties occurring and to investigate any incidents that do happen.”
Publication of the documents marks the second major leak of US Military information to Wikileaks this year. In March, Wikileaks posted online footage taken from US helicopter gunships as they fired on Iraqi civilians and killed Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh.
That video shows footage taken by a US helicopter gunship as it fired on people in the New Baghdad suburb of the Iraqi capital on 12 July 2007, revealing the initial attack and further shooting of people trying to help the wounded.
The White House condemned the disclosure of the new documents today, saying it “put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk”.
US national security adviser General Jim Jones said the material described a period during the administration of President George Bush, before “President Obama announced a new strategy with a substantial increase in resources for Afghanistan, and increased focus on al Qaida and Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, precisely because of the grave situation that had developed over several years”.