For anyone who is not planning to personally read all 92K classified Afghanistan war docs released this Sunday by Wikileaks — or doesn’t have time to read the reams of coverage to try and understand what it’s all about — here’s the Cliffs Notes version.
It’ll take some time for the extent of what’s in here to be fully understood – if the press has the attention-span to see it through. I’m sure I’ve missed plenty, so feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.
Major revelations. Of course, it all depends on how you define “information we didn’t know,” and “major.” Much of what’s in the reports reveal the scale of problems already widely known, but the overall impact is jaw-dropping. For example, on the problem of police corruption, the New York Times’ opening piece illustrates the seriousness of the issue, detailing a number of instances where “the reports recount episodes of police brutality, corruption petty and large, extortion and kidnapping. Some police officers defect to the Taliban. Others are accused of collaborating with insurgents, arms smugglers and highway bandits. Afghan police officers defect with trucks or weapons, items captured during successful ambushes or raids.”
There are, however a number of findings that aren’t as widely understood (though they have been suspected), or weren’t in official reports, so do, I believe, qualify as a “major revelation”. Here’s a few of those:
- Task Force 373: A secret unit of special forces meant to hunt down targets to capture or kill. In the midst of their hunt, they’ve killed civilians, children (in at least one instance, they were at school in a madrasa), and Afghan police, covering up their mistakes along the way. The reports also detail how TF 373’s activities undermine coalition attempts to gain the support of the people. The Guardian reports: “[These reports] raise fundamental questions about the legality of the killings and of the long-term imprisonment without trial, and also pragmatically about the impact of a tactic which is inherently likely to kill, injure and alienate the innocent bystanders whose support the coalition craves.”
- CIA sponsored paramilitary ops: The NYTimes reports: “The Central Intelligence Agency has expanded paramilitary operations inside Afghanistan. The units launch ambushes, order airstrikes and conduct night raids. From 2001 to 2008, the C.I.A. paid the budget of Afghanistan’s spy agency and ran it as a virtual subsidiary.” The Guardian reports on an incident where paramilitary troops shot a mute and deaf man, running for his life, in the back.
- A pattern of coverup: In total, the reports reveal 144 incidents in which coalition forces killed civilians over six years. Throughout the logs, accounts reveal cover up after cover up of incidents of civilian death, as well as a misrepresentation of facts to paint a rosier picture of progress. From the New York Times: “…in some cases the documents show that the American military made misleading public statements — attributing the downing of a helicopter to conventional weapons instead of heat-seeking missiles or giving Afghans credit for missions carried out by Special Operations commandos.” Coverups of civilian deaths are revealed throughout nearly all the coverage of the leaked documents, including here and here.
Max Fisher of the Atlantic put together his list of 5 big revelations, and I’ve included 4 of those below. My my notes are in italics.
- Pakistani Intelligence Possibly Aiding Taliban. [The Guardian’s coverage is more skeptical of intelligence reports that point to this. According to them, there is no “smoking gun”, though apparently that’s hard to come by. It’s worth noting though that the NYTimes and the Guardian looked at the same evidence and came up w/ different analysis. US media appears to be uniform in its reporting that the leaks confirm this.] The New York Times reports, “Americans fighting the war in Afghanistan have long harbored strong suspicions that Pakistan’s military spy service has guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington for its help combating the militants, according to a trove of secret military field reports made public Sunday.” The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is said to be involved in “a network of Pakistani assets and collaborators that runs from the Pakistani tribal belt along the Afghan border, through southern Afghanistan, and all the way to the capital, Kabul.” This network may be working “with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders.” [Is Pakistan’s spy service finally on our side?]
- Drones Less Effective Than Claimed Der Spiegel reports, “the secret memos reveal the drawbacks of a weapon that has been lauded by the US military as a panacea, a view shared by the president. In his short time in office, Barack Obama has unleashed double the number of drone missions ordered by his seemingly trigger-happy predecessor, George W. Bush. … But they are not always reliable. According to official reports, 38 Predator and Reaper drones have crashed while on combat missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. … each drone crash necessitates elaborate — and dangerous — salvage operations.” [Should spy drones be used against the oil spill?]
- 30 Years Later, Taliban Still Have Stingers During the anti-Soviet Afghan War of the 1980s, the U.S. helped the Afghan insurgents secure stinger missiles. After the Soviet military withdrew and during the civil war of the 1990s, which is when the Taliban first emerged, the U.S. attempted to recover all of the missiles. But the New York Times reports, “The Taliban have used portable heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft, a fact that has not been publicly disclosed by the military. This type of weapon helped the Afghan mujahedeen defeat the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.” [Why Pakistan blocked Facebook and Youtube.]
- U.S. and Afghan Officials Covering Up Civilian Deaths The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder finds “at least 144 separate incidents” of civilian casualties “and subsequent cover-ups.” He writes, “The failed special forces attempt to kill Abu Layth Ali Libi, which resulted in the deaths of civilians, suggests the willingness of some provisional governors to collude with the official storyline. … There is a reference to a CIA paramilitary operative shooting at 30 yards a blind woman, something that was duly reported back to headquarters.”
Is this a “big deal?”
For much of the press, that’s the question. The Obama administration triangulated desperately, on the one hand downplaying that this is nothing new, while arguing that the leaks are dangerous. They also dismissed them by arguing that this mostly covers events leading up to 2009, before Obama changed the strategy, and that these events were part of his thinking in changing the strategy. So I guess that makes this information a pretty big deal, right?
For an example of the “I knew all of this already, big whoop” argument from Slate.com, click here.
There are however some strong arguments that this is in fact, a big deal:
- The White House is obviously worried about this, despite their claim that this information is nothing new. For instance, they went so far as to push for a quick vote on the war supplemental in order to minimize the impact of the leaks on the outcome.
- No roundup would be complete without Jon Stewart’s take: “I’m not responding to the ‘newness’ of the reports – I’m responding to the ‘fucked-upedness’ of it!” Watch the video here.
- Glenn Greenwald writes, “the broad strokes were already well-known, but the sheer magnitude of the disclosures may force more public attention on these matters than had occurred previously.”
One of the Times’s prime concerns was whether the files caught this or the previous Administration, or the American military, in any outright lies. While it did find “misleading statements” on matters such as the Taliban’s use of heat-seeking missiles, and much that had been “hidden from the public eye,” the Times decided that
“Over all, the documents do not contradict official accounts of the war.”
One should pause there. What does it mean to tell the truth about a war? Is it a lie, technically speaking, for the Administration to say that it has faith in Hamid Karzai’s government and regards him as a legitimate leader—or is it just absurd? Is it a lie to say that we have a plan for Afghanistan that makes any sense at all? If you put it that way, each of the WikiLeaks documents—from an account of an armed showdown between the Afghan police and the Afghan Army, to a few lines about a local interdiction official taking seventy-five-dollar bribes, to a sad exchange about an aid scam involving orphans—is a pixel in a picture that does, indeed, contradict official accounts of the war, and rather drastically so.
- Mother Jones weighs in: “Know-it-all cynics can be dismissive and claim, Well, it isn’t big news to me that the war is not going as well as depicted by the Obama administration (and, prior to that, the Bush administration). Yet when 92,000 military reports emerge supporting this point, it ought to be significant—even for the jaded.”
- There is quite a bit of debate over comparison to the Pentagon Papers, and Daniel Ellsberg weighs in affimatively.
Wikileaks impact on journalism
There is one key difference between Wikileaks and the outlets it partnered with for the release. For instance, the New York Times is an American publication, and on some level, answerable to US interests. Because Wikileaks is, as some say, the first truly “stateless” news agency, they have no national-interest, and would be far less concerned about giving away tactical advantage. Here is an excellent analysis on this piece: “In media history up to now, the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new.”