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.

CNN.com 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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Captured Iraqi and Terrorist Records Now Available

I am delighted to draw your attention to the fact that the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) is now open to scholars at the National Defense University.  It presently contains a collection of some 22,000 pages of records captured from Saddam’s regime and from Al Qaida and its allies.  However, that total is simply a drop in the bucket compared to where it is going to be.  The collection grows on a daily basis and there is reason to believe that that growth will accelerate over time.

The CRRC’s website describes the two collections this way:

The Saddam records consist of a wide range of government files—audio recordings of high-level meetings, speeches by Saddam and senior officials, correspondence between ministries, records of the Presidential Diwan, and others—that bear mainly on issues related to national security, defense policy, and diplomacy. These records are categorized by their originating agency or office (for instance, Iraqi Intelligence Service or General Military Intelligence Directorate), and will eventually constitute the vast majority of CRRC holdings.

The [Al Qaida] records also consist of a wide range of files, including everything from al Qaeda “pocket litter” to financial records, theological and ideological documents, strategic plans, operational guidebooks, and histories of individual operations from the Afghan war in the 1980s through the early 2000s. These documents are grouped thematically. There are also a small number of documents generated by the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The website is a little sparse at the moment, but expect it to grow richer over time.  I imagine that Jessica Huckabey, the acting director (and a friend and occasional co-author of mine) can give you more information on the collection, its future prospects, and how to use it.

I do know that at the moment only documents with full English translations are being entered into the database, so don’t allow lack of Arabic skills to deter you.  The originals were “seized” as provided for under international law and are held by the US Government. The US and the Iraqi Governments have agreed that Iraq will receive the originals back.  Don’t count on Al Qaida ever getting their documents back.  The records open to scholars at the CRRC consist of digital copies of the originals, plus translations and file information sheets. In other words, this is the modern day equivalent of the microfilming of the German, Japanese, and Italian records that were captured in World War II.  It is also worth noting that the records at the CRRC are not the Ba’ath Party records that are held at the Hoover Institution nor the so-called “Jewish Archives” which are at the U.S. National Archives.  (

In a past life I worked with the materials that Jessica and her colleagues are migrating into the CRRC and I can tell you that for those scholars interested in modern Iraq, terrorism, or modern military history, there is a goldmine here.  Reputations to be made.  Dissertations to be written….

Still, according to an e-mail to The Daily from Kanan Makiya, the founder of IMF, there is a “deep rift” within the Iraqi Ministry of Culture about whether or not any of the records should be returned now.

Makiya said that in an Iraqi radio program that aired last Thursday, which he heard in Erbil, Iraq, “a deputy minister of culture, senior to Eskander and his team who visited Hoover, tore into his colleagues’ allegations, supporting enthusiastically the IMF and Hoover’s role.”

Human Terrain System/Anthropologists in War

Go check out Thomas Rid’s very insightful post over at Kings of War about the continuing controversy over the military’s use of social scientists (a tiny percentage of whom are anthropologists) in conducting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It’s the best thing I’ve seen on the topic and the comments are also well worth reading.  Rid compares anthropology to medicine–both professions share the ethical imperative to “do no harm”–and concludes that anthropologists’ rhetorical use of that imperative doesn’t necessarily have the implications in a war zone that they expect.

If I may be allowed to riff on the topic for a minute, a number of things continue to disturb me about the concern that so many anthropologists have expressed over the Human Terrain System (HTS).

  • Rid cites the network of “Concerned Anthropologists” as arguing that involvement in the Human Terrain System is unethical not only for anthropologists but for other social scientists, as well.  This claim strikes me as overreaching to the point of academic imperialism.  Surely each social science should be entitled to determine its own ethics.
  • The anthropologists want to impose their narrow understanding of their ethical imperative to “do no harm” on the U.S. military.  However, in active operations the military does not have “do no harm” as an option.  Every action–including inaction–leads to some group of people dying.  Make no mistake, if the military ceases using social scientists there will be people who will die as a result, a few of them Americans, the  others not.  They will have real names, real faces, they’ll just be faces that no anthropologist will ever see.
  • I’m concerned that anthropologists have been so good at public relations that lazy journalists writing about the HTS go straight to anthropologists for comment.  This leaves the impression that anthropologists speak for all social scientists.  Judging by the lack of protests by political scientists, economists, geographers, psychologists, and others, they don’t speak for all social scientists.
  • I can’t escape the feeling that the anthropologists’ concern is heavily informed by the unpopularity of the Iraq and Afghan wars.  Would they be similarly reticent to give advice to, say, a small Amazonian ethnic group suffering attacks by the Brazilian Army?  Would they be similarly reticent to give advice to Allied armies fighting the Nazis and liberating concentration camps?  War is a political act, the Prussian tells us.  Do anthropologists require their members to recuse themselves from other political issues?  If not why not?  Other forms of politics can lead to death, suffering, and oppression every bit as real, albeit usually less visually dramatic, as can war.

Anyway, go read Thomas’ piece.

Jihadist Battlefield Miracles

I recently heard something fascinating that I wanted to share.  A couple days ago I gave a talk at the National Defense University on the Salafi jihadists (al Qaida and their ilk) and how they assessed themselves and the global struggle in which they are engaged. Part of my talk discussed how the jihadists believe that God is on the battlefield with them, not merely protecting them, but actively taking part in combat.  I mentioned that stories abound about God shooting down American fighter planes with lightning bolts, about God sending ravenous beasts to the battlefield to eat the enemy, and other such miraculous events.  At this point, a woman in the class raised her hand to talk about her experience in Iraq.  Unfortunately, I never got the chance to talk with her one-on-one, but she mentioned that while she’d been there, apparently in some sort of public affairs capacity, stories had circulated about some wolf-like creature that would roam the battlefields.  It or they were allies of the jihadist insurgents and its/their targets were Americans.   

I found it interesting that these stories, which obviously originated with the jihadists themselves, came to the attention of the U.S. military not through intelligence means or interrogations of captured jihadists, but rather through the Iraqi media.  As I mentioned, such stories are staples in the jihadist world, but this was the closest I’d ever personally come to them, and it really brought the whole issue home to me.  I’d be very interested in hearing from others, via email or the comments link below, who might have similar stories or know more about the event that this student mentioned to me.          

By way of background, Abdullah Azzam, the founder of the Maktab al-Khidemat and Osama bin Laden’s mentor wrote a book about miracles in the Afghan War.  In its English translation it runs to 80 pages.  Here is one story that will serve to give its general flavor:       

Arsalaan narrated to me:… The tanks attacked us and they were about 120 in number. They were assisted by a mortar and many aircrafts. Our provisions were exhausted.  We were convinced of being captured. We sought protection from Allaah by means of Du’a. All of a sudden, bullets and shells rained upon the communists from all directions. They were defeated. There was no one on the battlefield besides us. He said: They were the Malaa’ikah (Angels.)  

Prof. David Cook wrote an article several years ago about how some of these sorts of stories manifested themselves in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.  He characterizes them as part of a “disconfirmation” process that the jihadists use to come to grips with their setbacks.

One, of course, should not believe that all Arabs or all Muslims believe this sort of story.  For instance, Abdelkader Tigha, the author of Contre-Espionnage Algerien: Notre Guerre Contres les Islamistes, which is about the authors experiences during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, mentions that he and the other members of the Algerian counterespionage service would hear these stories when they filtered back home from Afghanistan and would laugh at them and anybody silly enough to believe they were actually true.  To me, this only makes more interesting the student’s story that the Iraqi media itself was promulgating this tale.  Tigha says that Algerian mosques would distribute glossy magazines containing tales from Afghanistan.  A loose translation of what he says (on p. 23) would be:         

Each story was more incredible than the last.  The young jihadists recounted the miracles they had seen.  One of them, full of imagination, invented the story of the dogs which, wandering upon the scene of an ambush, passing amongst the corpses, devoured only the bodies of the Russians but did not touch those of the mujahidin.  On another page, one could read the edifying story of the mujahid slaughtered by the Russians.  When the Russians approached him to take his weapon, our supermujahid sprang up and machine gunned the Russian soldiers, killing them all.  God could do anything, was the conclusion.  Make you die and bring you back to life….This propaganda was at the root of a massive departure of young Algerians to Pakistan.        

It may be worth noting that similar stories circulate or have circulated in other societies.  A former colleague of mine wrote a book that dealt with similar phenomena in modern sub-Saharan Africa.  And, of course, then there are the “Angels of Mons.”  During 1914 and 1915 there were any number of British soldiers who said that they had seen (or that a friend of theirs had seen) a St. George and a host of angelic archers appear during the Battle of Mons and repel the Germans who were about to overrun the British Expeditionary Force.  It turned out that this story came from a short story called “The Bowmen” written by Arthur Machen a Welsh author of horror and fantasy fiction.  “The Bowmen” first appeared in late September 1914, a month after the battle, but that didn’t stop soldiers and citizens alike from believing it was all true and in fact, “remembering” the incident.  Machen recounts (pp. 11-12) how in the retelling, the story came to be circulated that German corpsed pierced by arrows had been found on the battlefield.  Machen had actually thought of including this thought in his story, but rejected the idea.  I can’t resist quoting him on this:

I rejected the idea as over-precipitous even for a mere fantasy.  I was therefore entertained when I found that what I had refused as too fantastical for fantasy was accepted in certain occult circles as hard fact.

Of course, that story of the Angels of Mons was current nearly 100 years ago and is remembered precisely because it was so anomalous…

Working with The Bin Laden Tapes

Hopefully you caught the story about Professor Flagg Miller (Assoc. Prof. of Religious Studies at UC Davis) and the Bin Laden tapes on NPR’s On the Media.  The Chronicle of Higher Education also recently ran an article along similar lines about him and his. 

Prof. Miller, whom I know very slightly as a result of having overlapped with him as a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has been working with a collection of some 1500 tapes acquired by CNN in Afghanistan in 2001.  Apparently they came from a house occupied by Bin Laden.  The tapes include recordings of a broad swath of Al Qaida activities, ranging from religious and military content to weddings to cooking breakfast.  CNN offered them to the Intelligence Community but it wasn’t interested.  Now the tapes are at Yale University and on Miller’s computer.  Miller, it should be said, is a fine choice to take a first hack at these tapes.  His last major project dealt with audiocassette poetry and Yemeni culture. 

Flagg Miller

Prof. Flagg Miller

The Chronicle article tells how one of Prof. Miller’s students expressed her surprise that the jihadists ate breakfast.  I don’t want to overemphasize this particular incident, but it struck me straight away that a student of military affairs would never have made such a comment.  It’s a well known fact that warfare–whether one is stateless terrorist or a soldier in an uber-organized military of a nation-state–is largely made up of utterly boring stretches of time.  Many of the best war movies make this clear, but Das Boot is probably the foremost example. 

On the other hand, where Prof. Miller and probably his students have an advantage over many people who study or take part in armed conflict is in having deep human understanding of the enemy, or at least part of it.  Understanding the enemy, even empathizing with him, is not at all incompatible with fighting him; in fact, it adds to ones ability to fight him.  Thank you General Sun Tzu.  This, presumably, is one of the reasons why the Intelligence Community has showed some interest in funding Prof. Miller’s work.  (Bloody ironic, considering that they told CNN originally that they had no interest in the tapes.)  Quite sensibly, Miller turned down the offer on the grounds that accepting such finding might appear to taint his work.  

Professor Miller is writing a book on what he has learned from these tapes and I very much look forward to reading it.  His will probably be the first book I’ve ever read by someone whose training is in linguistic anthropology.  I heard him give a “work-in-progress” talk at the Wilson Center and he has some interesting things to say, including some potentially important revelations about previously unknown ideological influences on Bin Laden.  Miller also has some views on the origins of the term “Al Qaida” that come, in large part, from his work with the tapes.  In particular, he has argued that the people we think of as “al Qaida” did not start using that term until very late on, largely as a result of rhetorical interaction with the West.  Now, I do not agree with him on this question, but he makes some good arguments and if he is correct, then his argument has some small but real implications for people in the worlds of strategic studies, counterterrorism, and intelligence. 

U.S. forces have captured and will continue to capture a large number of documents, tapes, and other detritus from our jihadist enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and doubtless other places.  Digital copies of many of these records are going to end up accessible to scholars in the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) that the Defense Department is opening.  (More controversially, the CRRC will also hold copies of records from Saddam’s regime.)  However, having worked with these materials, it appears to me that the U.S. Government often does not bother to retain or at least duplicate the sorts of everyday materials that are so meaningful to scholars such as Flagg Miller.  For instance, it is known (see here , here and here) that in 2001 the U.S. military took materials  from the house of the then #3 person in al Qaida, Mohammed Atef a.k.a. Abu Hafs al-Masri.  Given that the intelligence community was not interested in the Bin Laden tapes, one can only wonder what was left on the cutting room floor from one of his deputies. 

If, as I suspect, all these enemy materials are being lost, it is a pity.  Though Miller is doing his research for his own academic reasons, as he should, it is helping to secure us all.  It would be good to give him more material to work with and it would be good to see others join him in this line of study.