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.’ ”
Amy Davidson of The New Yorker observed, “We will, again, have to think hard about what we are trying to learn: Is it what we are doing, day to day, on the ground in Afghanistan, and how we could do it better? Or what we are doing in Afghanistan at all?”
Spencer Ackerman at Wired probed the new docs deeply: “This massive storehouse has the potential to be strategically significant, raising doubts about how and why America and her allies are conducting the war. It not only recounts 144 incidents in which coalition forces killed civilians over six years. But it shows just how deeply elements within the US’s supposed ally, Pakistan, have nurtured the Afghan insurgency. In other words, 2010’s answer to the Pentagon Papers is a database you can open in Excel, brought to you by the now-reopened-for-business WikiLeaks.”
On the other hand, an editorial in the hawkish Washington Post declared that the leak was overhyped, as the documents “hardly provide a secret history of the war or disclose previously unknown malfeasance.”
Naturally, Jon Stewart at The Daily Show had some fun with the “Best Leak Ever,” as the show dubbed it. He found it hard to believe that Brad Manning had allegedly lip-synched to Lady Gaga while downloading files and somehow “not run afoul of “don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”
But on a more serious note, Stewart, as is often the case, presented some of the wisest and boldest punditry on television. He asked viewers to consider the revelations about Pakistan helping to attack American troops: “What the fuck? We have ostensibly put a hit out on ourselves. This is insanity!” Then he played TV pundits such as Charles Krauthammer dismissing the importance of the cables and the lack of anything new. Stewart: “I’m not reacting to the newness of it but the fuckedupness of it…. What does it take to get you folks fired up?” Oh, right, it’s not Balloon Boy, he admitted.
He closed by showing new Al Jazeera video of Afghan military personnel getting high on dope before going on patrol.” “America is fighting a well-financed insurgency that is getting more deadly…in a part of the world that has not been conquered in thousands of years, and apparently they are trying to do it with my friends from high school.”
Maureen Dowd, meanwhile, wrote a tough column for the Times with some of the same themes, concluding: “The waterfall of leaks on Afghanistan underlines the awful truth: We’re not in control. [Robert] Gibbs argued that the deluge of depressing war documents…was old. But it reflected one chilling fact: the Taliban has been getting better and better every year of the insurgency.
“So why will 30,000 more troops help? We invaded two countries, and allied with a third—all renowned as masters at double-dealing. And, now lured into their mazes, we still don’t have the foggiest idea, shrouded in the fog of wars, how these cultures work.”
Greg Mitchell’s latest books and e-books are The Age of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences.