Wikileaks and Pilfered Military Documents from Afghanistan

A story developing just today.  Wikileaks, a site that has made itself infamous around the world, has topped its recent sensational (and to my taste misleadingly annotated) Apache video from the war in Iraq, by releasing some 91,000 pilfered US Government documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan.

They have given advance access to certain media outlets, including the Guardian in the UK, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel.  The Guardian has highlighted such issues as the Taliban’s SIGINT threat to NATO forces; the operations of an alleged “black SOF” unit called Task Force 373; Iranian covert action in Afghanistan; and civilian casualties.   The New York Times’ take is that the documents show the war to be going even worse than is officially admitted.  (And nobody in the US Government can be confused of seeing Afghanistan through rose-colored glasses.  The White House has noted that the leaked documents cover a period before the implementation of President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy.)  Aside from the main story, the Times is focusing on Pakistani aid to the Taliban and al Qaida.

The New York Times has adopted a rather amusing approach toward publishing classified material.  They noted that most entries in this database were classified SECRET, “a relatively low level of classification.”  They also say that the have decided not to publish any information which could prove dangerous to friendlies.  For instance, they did not publish the names of the sources of any of the reports that appear in the document collection, nor did they publish the names of any “operatives.”  All good moves, but worthless, really, given that Wikileaks and the Guardian are making the whole kit and kaboodle available to the public.  That made the Times’ prim comment that for security reasons they would not link to the whole database and that at the request of the White House they had urged Wikileaks to redact potentially damaging information utterly laughable.  Telling Wikileaks to show withhold information from classified documents is, after all, about like asking Hugh Hefner to stop hitting on young buxom blonds.  You can say it all day, but you shouldn’t delude yourself that it will make a real difference. has also reported on the Afghanistan collection and, interestingly, has asked its readers to help crowd source its analyses.

What effect will all this have?  Speaking as a historian, this will provide a great deal of information for people to work with in understanding this war.  Domestically, it will probably reinvigorate the debate over the war in Afghanistan, but I have a hard time imagining that it will lead to any fundamental policy changes.  It will also lead to a new round of complaints by Government officials and many members of the public over the alleged irresponsibility of the press, coming as it does on the heels of the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” series.  It probably will have a similarly modest effect in the UK which has recently undergone a change of government.  However, it can only be bad news for the German government and the German commitment to ISAF.  You’ll remember that last year there was a big uproar in Germany over an airstrike ordered by a German officer which ended up killing civilians.  Even if there are no further such German incidents in this database, the German public probably won’t want to be reminded that its forces are participating alongside Americans and Brits and others who do kill civilians.

Published in: on July 26, 2010 at 3:26 AM  Comments (3)  

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  1. While I make no bones about my total disdain for Wikileaks (aka Wickedleaks), it is almost cartoonish to watch the media with this latest offering by WL. Previously I had believed CNN to be a cut above the others, now I know better. I assume they are using this crowd sourcing bit as a quick means to get the pulse of the people concerning the leak and then spin stories from what the public consensus is. How better way to sell slots and up your ratings than by giving the people exactly what they want whether it is legitimate or not. Or whether its right or not. I thought news reporting was supposed to be the reporting of news as it is received and witnessed, not this snake oil, sideshow that has become the news media. On another note, pretty clever for CNN I might add. With crowd sourcing they’ve alleviated lots of legwork. If I were in their stable of reporters I’d have an alternate plan of employment, they may be replaced soon by the public if this crowd sourcing thing pans out!

  2. I think US will soon have to leave Afghanistan. Holland has already left and others are bound to follow.

  3. Plan O for Out
    by Don Bacon

    “A New Way Forward” includes a complicated and time-consuming process involving the Afghan parliament, District councils, a national council and broadening the composition of the Afghan Army. The plan de-emphasizes Karzai’s conceived “peace jirga” in favor of an effort by tribal and village leaders. These are all efforts devised by Americans to be accomplished by Afghans at the local level, an approach which unacceptably undermines the Afghanistan central government.

    A new Afghanistan policy is certainly needed. The current NATO effort in Afghanistan, primarily military, has failed after nine years of effort and a tripling of foreign military and civilian personnel. Unarmed government employees can no longer travel safely in 30 percent of the country’s 368 districts, according to published United Nations estimates, and there are districts deemed too dangerous to visit in all but one of the country’s 34 provinces. US leaders agree that there will be no military solution in Afghanistan.

    Anatol Lieven: “Thus the desire to bring democracy, freedom, “good governance” and an improvement in the status of women to Afghanistan were laudable goals in themselves, but the result has been a ghastly masquerade, involving descriptions of the present Afghan government and political system not one of which corresponds to reality. Meanwhile the equally laudable desire to bring development to Afghanistan has ensnared us in calculations of “progress” which are virtually Soviet in their misrepresentation of the facts and the experience of ordinary Afghans.”

    The current US political strategy is ‘reconciliation and reintegration’ of the Taliban. Decoded, this amounts to little more than amnesty and surrender. It hasn’t been effective. A recent $250 million program to lure low-level Taliban fighters away from the insurgency has stalled, with Afghans bickering over who should run it, and international donors slow to put up the money they had promised. The flow of Taliban fighters seeking to reintegrate has slowed to a trickle — by the most optimistic estimates, a few hundred in the last six months.

    What is needed instead is a new US policy of genuine accommodation with the Taliban to include understanding and addressing their positions and grievances with the goal of forming a power-sharing Afghan government. Recent reports suggest that most Afghans, tired of the all-pervasive insecurity, want negotiations with the Taliban.

    Other factions would also have to be accommodated. Afghanistan’s three largest ethnic minorities oppose Karzai’s outreach to the Taliban, which they said could pave the way for the fundamentalist group’s return to power and reignite the civil war.

    There are signs that because of a lack of progress such a policy is currently under consideration in Washington. The Guardian has reported that “feelers had been put out to the Taliban. Negotiations would be conducted largely in secret, through a web of contacts, possibly involving Pakistan and Saudi Arabia or organisations with back-channel links to the Taliban.”

    British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, possibly the next British Prime Minister, has urged the Afghanistan government to consider bringing Taliban supporters into its political system. “Afghanistan will never achieve a sustainable peace unless many more Afghans are inside the political system, and the neighbors [nearby countries] are onside with the political settlement,” said Miliband,

    President Karzai has not needed urging to talk to the Taliban. Karzai hosted a June peace conference where he called insurgents “brothers” and “dear Talibs,” He asked the United Nations to remove Taliban leaders from the international sanctions black list and ordering the freeing of Taliban suspects from government custody. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters in Washington on July 14 that the Obama administration has agreed only to delist Taliban and al-Qaeda on “case-by-case basis.”

    A recent report indicates that the US has already initiated talks with the Taliban. According to the Asia Times report, the Pakistan military and Saudi Arabia are acting as go-betweens to facilitate the negotiation process. The initial talks have covered two main areas – the issue of about 60 Pakistanis in the US’s Guantanamo detention facility, and al-Qaeda. Another element touched on in the talks is the American demand that it maintain a military presence in northern Afghanistan, while agreeing to give control of the south to the Taliban. The Taliban do not agree with this – they want a complete US withdrawal. This remains a point of major disagreement.

    The problem is that in the most recent Jirga, President Karzai informed the delegates at the outset; “There is no mention of a key Taliban demand that NATO troops leave Afghanistan,” when in fact that was one of the Taliban’s key demands. NATO is currently conducting a military offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar province.

    The NATO military presence must be removed for there to be any chance of peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership’s one non-negotiable demand is the complete withdrawal of Western forces. They say that this must take place before they will negotiate any settlement with the government in Kabul, but there might be some room for compromise.

    The oft-repeated objection to any Taliban control in Afghanistan is that the Taliban would establish “safe havens” for al Qaeda. Paul Pillar, deputy CIA chief of the counterterrorist center under President Clinton: “The US and other Western governments say we are in Afghanistan in order to deny terror groups like Al Qaeda a safe haven from which to plan new attacks. But that is no longer a valid assumption. Terrorists don’t need a sanctuary to plan attacks from. We are investing enormously in an operation that is based on a flawed assumption. The reality is that the terror threat to the West would not significantly increase if we were to leave Afghanistan.”

    Would any concessions to the Taliban result in the Taliban taking total control of Afghanistan? Pillar again: “This is another assumption that is rarely questioned. But prior to the U.S. intervention in 2001, the Taliban did not have uncontested control of Afghanistan. They had the upper hand in a civil war against the Northern Alliance; they had the backing of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia while the Northern Alliance had the backing of Iran, Russia, and India. The U.S. essentially threw its weight behind the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban.”

    While the Taliban is integrated somehow into the Afghan government, which is a matter for the Afghans to decide, there needs to be support for the Afghan effort in the form of a regional effort toward diplomacy and peace. President Obama needs to implement his promise of a new strategy on March 27, 2009: “. . .together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region — our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.”

    The main issues concern Pakistan and India, including the dispute over Kashmir and Pakistan’s concern about a growing influence of India in Afghanistan, which should be limited. Pakistan should be included in a regional forum of ‘Friends of Afghanistan’ made up of Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia: these countries would be asked to make pledges of non-interference and recognise Afghanistan as a non-aligned state with no foreign bases.

    Miliband again: “The political settlement needs to be external as well as internal, involving all of Afghanistan’s neighbours as well as those parts of the insurgency willing permanently to sever ties with al-Qaeda, give up their armed struggle and live within the Afghan constitutional framework.”

    Perhaps the US can succeed at reconciliation in Afghanistan although it has failed in Iraq. That was the main purpose of the surge, remember, but it didn’t happen. Now we’ve had another surge in Afghanistan but this time with a president (Karzai) who is actually in favor of reconciliation. We need to make it work. The alternative is more hundreds of billions of dollars and many lives wasted. Who wants to be the last to die for a lack of trying to end this nine-year war? President Obama has promised another reappraisal of Afghanistan war policy in December — it’s time.

    General Petraeus, Aug 25, 2010: “We sat down across the table in Iraq from individuals who had our blood on their hands. That’s what was done in northern Ireland. It’s what’s done in just about any insurgency as you get to the end stages of it.”

    The US needs to negotiate a return of Afghanistan back to the Afghans.

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