“Wikileaks” and Afghanistan
Jul 30, 2010
July 30, 2010
Number 07/10 #08
Much is being written about the exposure of 92,000 documents related to the Afghanistan conflict, released by the dissident activist organisation Wikileaks. This Update looks at the details and implications of these released documents.
First up is an editorial from the Washington Post attempting to summarise what the documents actually add to existing knowledge of the Afghanistan conflict – and the conclusion the paper draws is, not much. The Post says that, contrary to the claims of Wikileaks and its founder, Australian Julian Assange, the documents merely fill out and confirm what most followers of the news already knew – such as that the coalition forces in Afghanistan operated with insufficient resources between 2004-2009, and that the Iranians and elements of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies helped the insurgents. The paper also notes that they do not support Assange’s claim of war crimes, and that the overall 195 civilian casualities identified, “though regrettable, do not constitute a shocking total” over four years. For the paper’s full evaluation of what the documents actually reveal, CLICK HERE. Agreeing with the Post that Wikileaks’ story offers little that is new is veteran British foreign affairs correspondent Con Coughlin, who goes on to argue that the documents actually strengthen the case for staying the course in Afghanistan.
Next up is strategic expert Andrew Exum, who looks in some more detail at what the documents reveal – and he notes three key points, namely; 1. Charges that elements of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service cooperated with the Taliban; 2. documentation of Afghan civilian casualties, and 3. that secret squadrons of commandos are used to kill or capture insurgent leaders. He says none of this is new or surprising, but that some of the details revealed about “NATO tactics, techniques, procedures and equipment” will cause military consternation and may get some people killed. He agrees that the newspapers which published the material did nothing wrong, but the same cannot be said for Wikileaks, which he accuses of reckless activism. For Exum’s complete discussion, CLICK HERE. Others critical of the role of Wikileaks include Bret Stephens, and the editors of the Wall Street Journal, while foreign affairs analyst Tunku Varadarajan looks at what Julian Assange is trying to do.
Finally, on the broader problem of Afghanistan, we offer a slightly older, but still pertinent, guide to avoiding disaster in Afghanistan from top Washington analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht. Gerecht makes a strong case that there is no reason for too much doom and gloom in Afghanistan, especially compared to Iraq, pointing out that: the majority non-Pashtuns like the coalition forces much better than most Iraqis did; that even among Pashtuns support for the Taliban is limited; that Afghan democracy offers a potential new centre for Pashtun nationalism; and that the population is not turning against the coalition so far. He calls for a decent commitment of troops and resources and also sketches the unlovely and dangerous likely outcome if Western powers give up on Afghanistan. For the rest of Gerecht’s evaluation, CLICK HERE. Also taking on arguments for withdrawal from Afghanistan is foreign policy analyst Max Boot. Another good big picture look at Afghanistan comes from Christian Caryl of Foreign Policy, who debunks the widespread historical fallacy that Afghanistan has always been the “graveyard of empires.”
Readers may also be interested in:
- Gerecht also had a more recent take on the Wikileaks revelations about Pakistan’s role, as have others – see here, here and here.
- CBS’s Lara Logan notes that while the Wikileaks documents reveal 195 civilian casualties caused by the coalition, they also reveal 2000 such casualties caused by the Taliban.
- More on what the Wikileaks documents say about Iran’s role in encouraging Sunni insurgent and terrorist groups.
- The Jerusalem Post looks at the implications of applying the Goldstone standard applied to Israel in Gaza to the conflict in Afghanistan. More comment on this point is here.
- PA President Mahmoud Abbas again rejects direct talks with Israel, though the Arab League gives conditional approval to the idea. This is despite strong reported efforts by US Secretary of State Clinton.
- Barry Rubin deciphers in detail recent controversial statements in Turkey by UK PM David Cameron. More criticism of Cameron’s statement from Con Coughlin.
- AIJAC’s media release on the announcement of new autonomous Australian sanctions against Iran yesterday.
Washington Post, Tuesday, July 27, 2010
THOUGH IT may represent one of the most voluminous leaks of classified military information in U.S. history, the release by Wikileaks of 92,000 reports on the war in Afghanistan hardly merits the hype offered by the Web site’s founder. The archive is not comparable to the Pentagon Papers or the secret files of the East German Stasi secret police, as Julian Assange variously claimed on Sunday and Monday. Nor does it provide evidence for war crimes prosecutions — though in making that assertion, Wikileaks’ founder revealed his organization’s antiwar agenda.
Rather, the Wikileaks material tends to fill out and confirm the narrative of Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009 that most Americans are already familiar with. The insurgency grew steadily stronger in those years, while U.S. and NATO forces suffered from insufficient resources. The Afghan government and army, and especially its police forces, were plagued with corruption. Pakistan’s intelligence agency was suspected of maintaining links to the Taliban and even of supporting some terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan. And Afghan civilian casualties were a continual problem.
These were the main themes identified in the documents by the New York Times, the Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel after weeks of review. They were also the main topics in media coverage of the war during that time, in congressional hearings and debate, and even in the accounts of the White House and the Pentagon. The archives, made up in large part of field reports about specific incidents, add detail and texture. But, as described by the news organizations, they hardly provide a secret history of the war or disclose previously unknown malfeasance.
The Times account of the documents focuses on reports of Pakistani contacts with the Taliban. But the Guardian’s review concludes that much of that information is unreliable. The British newspaper in turn highlights what it says are 144 reported incidents in which Afghan civilians were killed or wounded by coalition forces. But the 195 deaths it counts in those episodes, though regrettable, do not constitute a shocking total for a four-year period.
The Obama administration harshly condemned the release of documents, saying they “could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.” But that, too, seemed an exaggeration. Both Wikileaks and the news organizations said they had withheld documents and other information that might endanger individuals. On the whole, the reports appear likely to add modestly to public understanding of the war. But they are not likely to change many minds.
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By ANDREW EXUM
New York Times, July 26, 2010
ANYONE who has spent the past two days reading through the 92,000 military field reports and other documents made public by the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks may be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m a researcher who studies Afghanistan and have no regular access to classified information, yet I have seen nothing in the documents that has either surprised me or told me anything of significance. I suspect that’s the case even for someone who reads only a third of the articles on Afghanistan in his local newspaper.
Let us review, though, what have been viewed as the major revelations in the documents (which were published in part by The Times, The Guardian of London and the German magazine Der Spiegel):
First, there are allegations made by American intelligence officers that elements within Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, have been conspiring with Taliban factions and other insurgents. Those charges are nothing new. This newspaper and others have been reporting on those accusations — often supported by anonymous sources within the American military and intelligence services — for years.
Second, the site provides documentation of Afghan civilian casualties caused by United States and allied military operations. It is true that civilians inevitably suffer in war. But researchers in Kabul with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict have been compiling evidence of these casualties, and their effect in Afghanistan, for some time now. Their reports, to which they add background on the context of the events, contributed to the decision by the former top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to put in place controversially stringent new measures intended to reduce such casualties last year.
Third, the site asserts that the Pentagon employs a secret task force of highly trained commandos charged with capturing or killing insurgent leaders. I suspect that in the eyes of most Americans, using special operations teams to kill terrorists is one of the least controversial ways in which the government spends their tax dollars.
The documents do reveal some specific information about United States and NATO tactics, techniques, procedures and equipment that is sensitive, and will cause much consternation within the military. It may even result in some people dying. Thus the White House is right to voice its displeasure with WikiLeaks.
Yet most of the major revelations that have been trumpeted by WikiLeaks’s founder, Julian Assange, are not revelations at all — they are merely additional examples of what we already knew.
Mr. Assange has said that the publication of these documents is analogous to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, only more significant. This is ridiculous. The Pentagon Papers offered the public a coherent internal narrative of the conflict in Vietnam that was at odds with the one that had been given by the elected and uniformed leadership.
The publication of these documents, by contrast, dumps 92,000 new primary source documents into the laps of the world’s public with no context, no explanation as to why some accounts may contradict others, no sense of what is important or unusual as opposed to the normal march of war.
Many experts on the war, both in the military and the press, have long been struggling to come to grips with the conflict’s complexity and nuances. What is the public going to make of this haphazard cache of documents, many written during combat by officers with little sense of how their observations fit into the fuller scope of the war?
I myself first went to Afghanistan as a young Army officer in 2002 and returned two years later after having led a small special operations unit — what Mr. Assange calls an “assassination squad.” (I also worked briefly as a civilian adviser to General McChrystal last year.) I can confirm that the situation in Afghanistan is complex, and defies any attempt to graft it onto easy-to-discern lessons or policy conclusions. Yet the release of the documents has led to a stampede of commentators and politicians doing exactly that. It’s all too easy for them to find field reports to reaffirm their preconceived opinions about the war.
The Guardian editorialized on Sunday that the documents released reveal “a very different landscape … from the one with which we have become familiar.” But whoever wrote that has not been reading the reports of his own newspaper’s reporters in Afghanistan.
The news media have done a good job of showing the public that the Afghan war is a highly complex environment stretching beyond the borders of the fractured country. Often what appears to be a two-way conflict between the government and an insurgency is better described as intertribal rivalry. And often that intertribal rivalry is worsened or overshadowed by the violent trade in drugs.
The Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel did nothing wrong in looking over the WikiLeaks documents and excerpting them. Despite the occasional protest from the right wing, most of the press in the United States and in allied nations takes care not to publish information that might result in soldiers’ deaths.
But WikiLeaks itself is another matter. Mr. Assange says he is a journalist, but he is not. He is an activist, and to what end it is not clear. This week — as when he released a video in April showing American helicopter gunships killing Iraqi civilians in 2007 — he has been throwing around the term “war crimes,” but offers no context for the events he is judging. It seems that the death of any civilian in war, an unavoidable occurrence, is a “crime.”
If his desire is to promote peace, Mr. Assange and his brand of activism are not as helpful as he imagines. By muddying the waters between journalism and activism, and by throwing his organization into the debate on Afghanistan with little apparent regard for the hard moral choices and dearth of good policy options facing decision-makers, he is being as reckless and destructive as the contemptible soldier or soldiers who leaked the documents in the first place.
Andrew Exum is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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Reuel Marc Gerecht
The New Republic, June 28, 2010 | 5:20 pm
For those of us who can remember how lonely it was to be in favor of the Iraq war and the hoped-for surge in 2006, reflecting on America’s current travails in Afghanistan—a “fool’s errand” (George F. Will) administered by “well-meaning infidels” (Andrew J. Bacevich)—isn’t nearly so depressing. Although one can have serious doubts about how the Obama administration has so far handled the conflict (doubts made only a little less nagging with hearings, starting today and expected to confirm General David Petraeus’ appointment as the theater commander), the status quo in the country shouldn’t yet produce so much doom and gloom.
In Afghanistan the non-Pashtun population—the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, and Turkmen—openly like us a lot more than did the Iraqi Arab Shia, who still have a very hard time saying what they privately confess (“thank you very much for destroying the Butcher of Baghdad, the Ba’ath Party, and centuries of stifling Sunni domination”). The non-Pashtuns make up probably a bit more than 50 percent of Afghanistan’s population and control more or less stably about 60 percent of the country. They’ve been remarkably well behaved among themselves, toward each other, and toward the Pashtuns, who once embraced pretty solidly the Taliban’s rough treatment of minorities, especially the Shia Hazara, who not infrequently were just killed for sport.
There’s certainly been some (largely unreported) post-invasion ethnic ugliness: Pashtuns, who were seeded in the non-Pashtun north by Afghanistan’s Pashtun kings, have sometimes been forced to flee since 2001 as the non-Pashtuns vengefully started to flex their muscle. Yet to see Tajiks and Pashtuns mingle easily in Kabul or in the commercially dynamic city of Herat, where Tajik power has grown enormously since 2001, is to realize that we are still culturally in a much better position in Afghanistan than we were in Iraq in 2003. And the Pashtuns, diverse in their cultural and political loyalties, are still very much in play ideologically and religiously (with Pashtuns, the two always go together). By comparison, in Mesopotamia the Sunni Arab community was for nearly four years enthusiastic in its embrace of the anti-American/anti-Shi’ite insurgency. The Taliban do have a certain appeal among Afghanistan’s rootless and most radicalized young men, but the anti-Taliban Pashtun community is still vastly larger in numbers than those who want to see a return of Mullah Omar and his kind.
Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty has an enormous following among the Pashtuns, as it does with the Tajiks (RFE-RL broadcasts in both Pashto and Dari). The astonishing exhibit of its Afghan service’s fan mail at the Library of Congress, which shows just a rivulet of a tidal wave of appreciation, gives a good idea of how sincerely and powerfully Afghans can express their gratitude to foreigners who have the good sense to create surrogate radio about the subjects average Afghans care about (good governance, human rights, art, literature, music). Afghan patriotism—even after its religious radicalization in the 1970s and the awful, sanguinary years since—isn’t particularly xenophobic, except among those Pashtuns who’ve drunk deeply of the radical Islamism that the Arab jihadists carried with them during the Soviet-Afghan war (1979–1989) and that Pakistani madrassas incubated so effectively.
Foreigners who like to depict the Taliban as an increasingly popular liberation movement seriously miscast the dynamics at work. It is entirely possible that the United States and its European allies, in league with president Hamid Karzai, could turn the Taliban into a popular force, but this will most likely happen because the West has done too little, not too much. Average Afghans, even among the Pashtuns, have wanted us to interfere a lot in their country (compared to Afghan warlords and decades of strife, we look very good). Under President George W. Bush, we really didn’t want to get involved; President Barack Obama would—it’s a very good guess—strongly prefer to have the counterterrorism-centric/Afghan lite policy of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Vice President Joseph Biden is Rumsfeld on steroids), but he’s been constrained by its obvious failure under Bush.
To avoid disaster, Washington is going to have to admit that the time and resources now allocated to Afghanistan are insufficient. President Barack Obama’s July 2011 schedule for drawing down, which he appears to be abandoning (who really knows given how much parsing is required), compounds the most debilitating mistake he has made so far: his failure to force a recount or a new vote in the presidential election of 2009. What was true in Iraq is as true in Afghanistan: elections matter. The principal problem the Afghan Pashtun community faces is that it has been unable to generate a new core loyalty that ties it peacefully and productively to other Afghans. The monarchy could at one time do this since traditional institutions, even when coercive, respect and reinforce traditional loyalties and class hierarchies. But the old Afghanistan was largely blown away by the savage brutality of Afghan communism, the Soviet-Afghan war, internecine strife, and the rule of Mullah Omar’s Taliban, who cared much more about God and Osama bin Laden than about Afghanistan’s tribes and antiquated ethics.
The primitive, slow, and most assuredly ugly development of democracy in Afghanistan allows for the Pashtuns to find a new center. It gives them a chance to disentangle religious militancy from Pashtun pride: the Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border historically have a strong tendency to express their ethnic identity, when distressed or challenged, through religious militancy. The massive vote-rigging by President Karzai, or by Mr. Karzai’s minions, seriously compromised the evolution of the Pashtuns and alienated Afghanistan’s minorities, who are no longer at all sure of the Pashtun president’s ecumenical goodwill. The tragicomedy of the Obama administration then having buyer’s remorse about Karzai, who quite legitimately could have wondered about the staying power and competence of the Obama Afghan team, produced an even worse result: the White House reinforced Karzai’s long and counterproductive habit of reaching out to the (good) Taliban and the (good) Pakistanis (there actually are many good Pakistanis, who will, of course, quickly become bad Pakistanis the moment they think the United States is fleeing Afghanistan). What’s worse, Karzai’s engagement proclivities were, more or less, backed by the White House, which can’t let go of the idea that there may be a diplomatic escape from Central Asia. But Pashtun cultural and political evolution dies with these outreaches, the Taliban become more powerful, and Afghanistan’s minorities become ever-more convinced that a return to civil war is inevitable.
Fortunately, none of this is yet terminal. Expectations among Afghans are pretty low; the awfulness of Taliban rule remains sufficiently vivid to allow the Americans probably several more significant cock-ups before we lose the Pashtuns and the minorities. The keys now are sufficient American troops to both clear and hold, and an American willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of Afghan politics and reconstruction. This doesn’t mean that we will seek to undermine Mr. Karzai’s constitutional authority (for better or worse, he’s the president); but we should be willing to monitor and intrude into local governance whenever it becomes abusive. We will certainly alienate many Afghans on the top of the food chain, but they will adjust so long as they know we’re not leaving in 2011. Since 2001 Afghans have wanted us to play the khan, a tribal leader. We should finally do so while insuring that local governance that works (and we can have a pretty low bar for success) stays free from American intrusion.
But we should all be clear about what lies ahead if we just give up. Without us militarily backing a Pashtun alternative to the Taliban, the Taliban will win. There is no single Pashtun military force or conceivable Pashtun alliance capable of beating them in the most strategic points in the south. If they take Kandahar, they will eventually get everything else. A lightning expansion of Taliban power, similar to what happened in the mid-1990s, would be very likely. Civil war will follow, which could well be even more ferocious than before, since the minorities know well what’s in store for them if they lose. The Pakistanis will inevitably support the resurgent Taliban (given Pashtun Pakistani politics, they’ll have no choice), which will further the radicalization of Pakistan proper and put enormous stress on the country’s fragile democracy. India will throw its weight behind the Afghan minorities (as will Iran). Arms will flow. And if Indian and Iranian arms aren’t enough, it’s not unlikely Washington would have to ship weaponry to a re-born anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Islamabad will, of course, be furious. The Pakistani army now can’t control the country’s militants. Civil war in Afghanistan would likely launch jihadists against Indian targets, with the unofficial support of even more religiously-impassioned Pakistani military and intelligence officials. Anger at the United States, especially if Washington must choose sides in the civil war, would likely become volcanic. Simply put: All hell could break lose.
And last but not least, Al Qaeda, which has become a subcontinent-based terrorist organization with a subcontinent culture, will have more breathing space, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some folks want to hope that the new Taliban won’t have the pro–Al Qaeda philosophy of the old Taliban, that they will have learned their lesson that the global jihad brings foreign invasion and Predator drones. But the opposite seems vastly more likely: The Taliban will have driven the United States out of Afghanistan. Victory against the Soviets will have been followed by victory against the Americans. Mullah Omar’s decision to sacrifice his regime on the altar of global jihad will have in the end brought ultimate victory. Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri will come out of the mountains (with a civil war in Afghanistan, where the Pakistanis are supporting the “new” Taliban, Washington can be confident that Islamabad will end the CIA’s covert Predator-drone basing rights). Their triumphant return to Jalalabad, where bin Laden landed in 1996 after his flight from Sudan, should make stunning video. Without American boots on the ground in Afghanistan and (covertly) in Pakistan, operations against Al Qaeda and its allied subcontinent brothers will effectively cease. There is no such thing as an “over-the-horizon” intelligence and counterterrorist operation. We will be back to Bill Clinton’s war of firing cruise missiles at rock huts and praying that we kill someone other than Kashmiris. It will likely take no time at all before America’s long war in Afghanistan won’t seem so costly or foolish, but by then it will be too late.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard.