As a new debate seemingly fails to build over US policy on Afghanistan—in the wake of President Obama’s announcement of a rather-too-slow “drawdown”—it is useful to review the much-forgotten revelations that emerged from WikiLeaks’s massive “war logs” release last July, and the reaction (or lack of) they produced.
WikiLeaks released more than 91,000 documents related to the United States and the war in Afghanistan, which the New York Times called “a six-year archive of classified military documents [that] offers an unvarnished and grim picture of the Afghan war.” Explicitly, or by extension, the release also raised questions about the media coverage of the war to date.
The Guardian carried a tough editorial on its web site, calling the picture “disturbing” and raising doubts about ever winning this war, adding: “These war logs—written in the heat of engagement—show a conflict that is brutally messy, confused and immediate. It is in some contrast with the tidied-up and sanitized ‘public’ war, as glimpsed through official communiques as well as the necessarily limited snapshots of embedded reporting.”
WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange claimed this was the most comprehensive history of a war with that war still in progress and predicted that it would “change public opinion.” He also informed Der Spiegel, “The most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war. And they need to be stopped.” He said the files “suggest thousands of war crimes.”
Yet, after a frenzy of press coverage for a few days, the media, US policymakers and the public turned the page, basically putting a wide debate on hold awaiting Obama’s decision last month. (See my two books on the subject for more.)
The White House, which knew what was coming, quickly slammed the release of classified reports—most labeled “secret”—and pointed out the documents ended in 2009, just before the president set a new policy in the war; and claimed that the whole episode was suspect because WikiLeaks was against the war. Still, it was hard to dismiss official internal memos such as: “The general view of Afghans is that current gov’t is worse than the Taliban.”
Among the revelations that gained prime real estate from the New York Times: “The documents…suggest that Pakistan, an ostensible ally of the United States, allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly 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.”
The Times also reported that the US had given Afghans credit for missions actually carried out by our own Special Ops teams.
The Guardian traced the CIA and paramilitary roles in the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan, many cases hidden until now. David Leigh (later a prime critic of Assange) wrote, “They range from the shootings of individual innocents to the often massive loss of life from air strikes, which eventually led President Hamid Karzai to protest publicly that the US was treating Afghan lives as ‘cheap.’ ”