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WikiLeaks’s Afghan War Diary:
A “Pentagon Papers” for Our Time

08/2/10

“In releasing the Pentagon Papers I acted in hope I still hold: that truths that changed me could help Americans free themselves and other victims from our longest war.” —Daniel Ellsberg, Papers on the War (1972)

There’s a kind of appropriate, ironic justice that the Internet, which was originally developed by the Defense Department (as ARPANET)—with taxpayer dollars, naturally—now serves as the delivery system for spilling to the world a trove of secret U.S. military reports on the war in Afghanistan (also funded by the American public): a “Pentagon Papers” for our time. WikiLeaks.org, which in April released a U.S. military video of an Apache helicopter gunship killing civilians and Reuters journalists in Baghdad, has posted on the Internet about 92,000 SIGACTS (significant activity reports) from the Afghan war written between 2004 and 2009. Before posting the secret field reports, WikiLeaks provided to the New York Times, the Guardian (U.K.), and the German magazine Der Spiegel an advance peek. (Click here for a video of a press conference with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, shown above.)

(We meant to write about this earlier, but we’ve been so busy reading all 92,000 documents. Hey, the New York Times had a two-week jump-start! And this leak comes just a week after we bought a first edition of Daniel Ellsberg’s Papers on the War (1972)—in Woodstock, no less. Coincidence? You decide.)

WikiLeaks’s Afghan War Diary was unloaded within days of Newsweek’s publication of a “Rethinking Afghanistan” cover story bluntly titled “We’re Not Winning. It’s Not Worth It” by national security veteran Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (not a hotbed of radicalism), and just weeks after the Rolling Stone profile of “The Runaway General” Stanley McChrystal IED’d the war effort and cast doubt on the troops’ support of the whole counterinsurgency strategy that Washington hoped would turn the war around. (As the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson points out, Gen. McChrystal himself leaked a report last September when it suited him, an early instance of the insubordination that got him fired.)

“What Does It Mean to Tell the Truth About a War?”

Although much of the WikiLeaks material is dismissed as routine—the White House predictably says there’s “nothing new here”—the documents reveal facts that will be news to the general public, further depressing an already war-weary, crisis-strained nation. Among the reports’ key revelations or substantiations:

It is not possible to know yet what effect the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diary will have on the war or how it will affect the already depressed support among the American public and in Congress, but the release did not boost congressional enthusiasm for war funding: Last Tuesday’s vote by the House of Representatives on $59 billion in appropriations for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars was 308 to 114 (148 Democrats and 160 Republicans voting aye, and 102 Democrats and 12 Republicans opposing the measure). Last year the opposition was 32 Democrats, so opposition has increased by 82 votes and is becoming bipartisan. The trend is clear. (The latest Gallup poll finds 58 percent of Americans supporting a drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan along Obama’s proposed July 2011 time line, and a Washington Post–ABC News poll finds that only 43 percent think the Afghan war is worth fighting.)

We’re pleased to see that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry—a Vietnam War veteran, you’ll recall, who has been here before—does not condemn the leak. He issued a statement saying, “However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.”

Who does condemn the leak? Among other officials, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said on Thursday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his source “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” That is theoretically, even practically possible—we hope no harm comes to anyone named in the reports—even though WikiLeaks withheld some 15,000 documents whose publication unredacted might have endangered soldiers’ lives or compromised military security, and the New York Times coordinated with WikiLeaks and the White House to reduce the likelihood of inadvertent exposures. In any case, we find it awfully rich to hear a U.S. defense secretary and former CIA director talk about there being blood on other people’s hands.

How Are the WikiLeaks Files Like the Pentagon Papers?

Although there are similarities between the WikiLeaks Afghan War Logs and the Pentagon Papers leaked to the New York Times in 1971 by defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, there are significant distinctions. The Pentagon Papers were a top secret history of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War that was commissioned by defense secretary Robert McNamara, whereas the WikiLeaked documents are not a continuous narrative but an archive of various field reports written by soldiers on the ground about combat operations, civilian casualties, bribes demanded by Afghan warlords, IEDs, suicide bombers, Taliban attacks, Task Force 373, a secret U.S. Special Forces assassination unit, and so on.

In the case of the Pentagon Papers the (Nixon) White House was infuriated and went ballistic (see Frank Rich’s account), whereas the Obama White House shrugged wearily, expressed dismay, and the president said the WikiLeaked reports “don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate in Afghanistan.” The White House this time around knew the leaks were coming; indeed, perhaps to forestall recrimination, the New York Times notified the administration and cooperated with White House officials, who then praised the paper for handling the matter responsibly. As the Times described it, “At the request of the White House, the Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.”

Some Intelligent Commentary on the Leaks

For a fine and richly sourced overview of what’s in the Afghan War Diary and who has said what about it, see “What You Need to Know” by Greg Mitchell, former editor of Editor and Publisher, in his Media Fix column for The Nation.

Steve Clemons, the well-connected editor of the excellent foreign policy blog The Washington Note, says the Afghan War Diary “may be the game-changer in American support for a war that continues to worsen. . . . These revelations confirm what the Afghan War skeptics have been arguing for some time—and completely invalidate those who have been promulgating a rosier view of outcomes inside Afghanistan and trying to sell the false illusion that American partnership with Afghanistan is working.” Clemons adds:

The question is whether President Obama has the backbone and temerity to reframe this engagement and stop the hemorrhaging of American lives and those of allies as well as the gross expenditure of funds for a war that shows a diminished America that is killing hundreds of innocent people and lying about it, of an enemy that is animated and funded in part by our supposed allies in Pakistan, and US tolerance for a staggering level of abuse, incompetence and corruption in our Afghan allies in the Karzai government.

Steve Coll, a New Yorker writer and author of the influential Ghost Wars, a history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, said on PBS’s Newshour:

. . . there is no reason to believe that the Pakistani intelligence service has altered its historical collaboration with the Taliban in pursuit of what it imagines to be its national interests in Afghanistan.

. . . [Pakistan] is a major non-NATO ally of the United States in receipt of many hundreds of millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers. It should be unacceptable for the United States to have an ally actively collaborate with militias that are attacking and killing American soldiers.

I actually think that the granular accounts of corruption by the Afghan government at the local level and the toll of civilian casualties in mistaken raids are probably even more significant than—than the rest, because they remind us that this war at the local level is experienced often as one in which neither the Afghan government nor the noble intentions of the United States translate into the experience of ordinary Afghans.

An excellent piece by New Yorker senior editor Amy Davidson says the Times searched for evidence of whether the WikiLeaks files caught the present or previous administration “in any outright lies.” The Times concluded, “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?

And in “The Great (Double) Game,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman succinctly diagnoses the sickness, and the only remedy:

Best I can tell from the WikiLeaks documents and other sources, we are paying Pakistan’s Army and intelligence service to be two-faced. Otherwise, they would be just one-faced and 100 percent against us. The same could probably be said of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai. But then everyone out there is wearing a mask—or two. . . .

So we pay Pakistan to help us in Afghanistan, even though we know some of that money is killing our own soldiers, because we fear that just leaving could lead to Pakistan’s Islamists controlling its bomb. And we send Saudi Arabia money for oil, even though we know that some of it ends up financing the very people we are fighting, because confronting the Saudis over their ideological exports seems too destabilizing. (Addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.)

Alas, we don’t have the money, manpower or time required to fully transform the most troubled states of this region. . . . We do, though, have the technology, necessity and innovators to protect ourselves from them—and to increase the pressure on them to want to change—by developing alternatives to oil. It is time we started that surge. I am tired of being the sucker in this game.

Other sources to check out:

Larry King interviews Daniel Ellsberg and Julian Assange after the WikiLeaks release

A New Yorker profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, “No Secrets: Julian Assange’s Mission for Total Transparency,” by Raffi Khatchadourian.

Steven Colbert interviews (and grills) Julian Assange after the release of the “Collateral Murder” video in April 2010.

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones: “The Afghanistan Document Dump

Wired.com Danger Room: “WikiLeaks Drops 90,000 War Docs; Fingers Pakistan as Insurgent Ally

James Fallows at The Atlantic Monthly: “WikiLeaks and AfPak: What ‘Everyone’ Knows

*

About the war in Afghanistan overall, we’ll repeat what we’ve affirmed before, in “Deeper into Afghanistan: 360 Degrees of Damnation,” written in December 2009 after President Obama’s decision to escalate the war:

What we do want in Afghanistan and Pakistan is continued diplomacy and aid based upon consultation with local tribal elders—after all the time our officials have been in Afghanistan, there are some trusting relationships—and maintenance of ability to strike at confirmed al Qaeda targets if we know they are plotting or posing a clear and present danger to the U.S. mainland.

We also hope the wise elders in Washington will work diplomatically with Iran as well as Pakistan and other neighbors of Afghanistan to resolve long-term strategic issues. Russia and China should be in the loop, as well; these closer neighbors have a clear interest in regional stability.

What we want for America is a wiser, more sustainable level of public spending that benefits the people who pay the taxes. We want our fellow citizens in great numbers to realize, before it is too late, that this nation simply cannot afford to prolong this war.

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