The Afghan War Diary (AWD for short) consists of messages from several important US military communications systems. The messaging systems have changed over time; as such reporting standards and message format have changed as well. This reading guide tries to provide some helpful hints on interpretation and understanding of the messages contained in the AWD.
Most of the messages follow a pre-set structure that is designed to make automated processing of the contents easier. It is best to think of the messages in the terms of an overall collective logbook of the Afghan war. The AWD contains the relevant events, occurrences and intelligence experiences of the military, shared among many recipients. The basic idea is that all the messages taken together should provide a full picture of a day’s important events, intelligence, warnings, and other statistics. Each unit, outpost, convoy, or other military action generates reports about relevant daily events. The range of topics is rather wide: Improvised Explosives Devices encountered, offensive operations, taking enemy fire, engagement with possible hostile forces, talking with village elders, numbers of wounded, dead, and detained, kidnappings, broader intelligence information and explicit threat warnings from intercepted radio communications, local informers or the afghan police. It also includes day to day complaints about lack of equipment and supplies.
The description of events in the messages is often rather short and terse. To grasp the reporting style, it is helpful to understand the conditions under which the messages are composed and sent. Often they come from field units who have been under fire or under other stressful conditions all day and see the report-writing as nasty paperwork that needs to be completed with little apparent benefit to expect. So the reporting is kept to the necessary minimum, with as little type-work as possible. The field units also need to expect questions from higher up or disciplinary measures for events recorded in the messages, so they will tend to gloss over violations of rules of engagement and other problematic behavior; the reports are often detailed when discussing actions or interactions by enemy forces. Once it is in the AWD messages, it is officially part of the record — it is subject to analysis and scrutiny. The truthfulness and completeness especially of descriptions of events must always be carefully considered. Circumstances that completely change the meaning of a reported event may have been omitted.
The reports need to answer the critical questions: Who, When, Where, What, With whom, by what Means and Why. The AWD messages are not addressed to individuals but to groups of recipients that are fulfilling certain functions, such as duty officers in a certain region. The systems where the messages originate perform distribution based on criteria like region, classification level and other information. The goal of distribution is to provide those with access and the need to know all of the information that is relevant to their duties. In practice, this seems to be working imperfectly. The messages contain geo-location information in the forms of latitude-longitude, military grid coordinates and region.
The messages contain a large number of abbreviations that are essential to understanding its contents. When browsing through the messages, underlined abbreviations pop up as a little explanation when the mouse is hovering over it. The meanings and use of some shorthands have changed over time, others are sometimes ambiguous or have several meanings that are used depending on context, region or reporting unit. If you discover the meaning of a so-far unresolved acronym or abbreviations, or if you have corrections, please submit them to email@example.com.
An especially helpful reference to names of military units and task-forces and their respective responsibilities can be found at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/enduring-freedom.htm
The site also contains a list of bases, airfields http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/afghanistan.htm Location names are also often shortened to three-character acronyms.
Messages may contain date and time information. Dates are mostly presented in either US numeric form (Year-Month-Day, e.g. 2009-09-04) or various Euro-style shorthands (Day-Month-Year, e.g. 2 Jan 04 or 02-Jan-04 or 2jan04 etc.).
Times are frequently noted with a time-zone identifier behind the time, e.g. "09:32Z". Most common are Z (Zulu Time, aka. UTC time zone), D (Delta Time, aka. UTC + 4 hours) and B (Bravo Time, aka UTC + 2 hours). A full list off time zones can be found here: http://www.timeanddate.com/library/abbreviations/timezones/military/
Other times are noted without any time zone identifier at all. The Afghanistan time zone is AFT (UTC + 4:30), which may complicate things further if you are looking up messages based on local time.
Finding messages relating to known events may be complicated by date and time zone shifting; if the event is in the night or early morning, it may cause a report to appear to be misfiled. It is advisable to always look through messages before and on the proceeding day for any event.
David Leigh, the Guardian's investigations editor, explains the online tools they have created to help you understand the secret US military files on the war in Afghanistan: www.guardian.co.uk/world/datablog/video/2010/jul/25/afghanistan-war-logs-video-tutorial