Like a star shell bursting high above a hotly contested battlefield at midnight, the thousands of documents recently released by Wikileaks have thrown the nine-year war in Afghanistan into stark and brutal relief, illuminating “where ignorant armies clash by night” as Matthew Arnold put it in ‘Dover Beach,’ John CK Daly writes for ISN Security Watch.
By John CK Daly
Given the sheer volume of the material, its impact will be debated for months to come, but one casualty is already clear – the disclosures have wounded the Pentagon’s carefully managed PR campaign to convince the US population and its allies that ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ is making progress.
What the documents have done is provide substance to the bleaker realities of the Afghan war: that the Taliban’s influence is growing and receiving covert assistance from Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence despite US aid now in the billions; that President Hamid Karzai’s government is irredeemably corrupt; and that the US has killed many more civilians than previously acknowledged. Echoes of Vietnam and the USSR’s failed Afghan campaign reverberate through the documents.
While the Pentagon Papers was a secret report commissioned by the government from the Rand Corp to assess how the US became involved in Vietnam and the subsequent course of the war, like the Wikileaks material, it laid out the relentless spin that the government sold both itself and the American people about the conflict’s progress despite the disturbing and contrary evidence that had earlier inescapably marched into every American home via television when the Tet offensive began in January 1968, three years before the Pentagon Papers appeared in the New York Times.
Unlike the Pentagon Papers, the Wikileaks material does not contain policy-making material, providing instead a ground-level view of various operations from 2004 to late last year. The bulk of the Wikileaks material are military SIGACTS (significant activity reports), accessible to anyone with access to the Pentagon’s the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) rather than the other higher security networks. Those searching the Wikileaks database will find no high-level classified policy documents, but the SIGACTS taken collectively provide a ground-level equivalent of incident reports that paint a picture greatly at variance with Washington’s pronouncements about the war up to now.
What the two collections have in common is government mendacity in consistently misleading the people over the course of the two insurgencies, which threw the world’s most advanced military into counterinsurgencies for which it was woefully unprepared.
Back on that familiar slippery slope
What the Wikileaks materials demonstrate to all but the most fervent is that the American military machine is inexorably going down the slippery slope trod by other military superpowers of their time, from Alexander the great through Genghis Khan to the British Empire (three invasions, two in the 19th century and one in the early 20th) leading to the USSR’s ill-fated gambit.
From the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom in November 2001, the Pentagon’s belief in its technical superiority combined with a messianic sense of American exceptionalism to convince the Bush administration that Afghanistan could be run on a relative shoestring of ground forces, allowing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to husband his forces for an eventual attack on Iraq.
Not that doubts weren’t raised. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, in considering how to respond to the October 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor, the Principals Committee – meeting on al-Qaida on 4 September 2001, seven days before the 9/11 attacks – “often talked about the fact that there is ‘nothing worth hitting in Afghanistan’ and said ‘the cruise missiles cost more than the jungle gyms and mud huts’ at terrorist camps.” This comment was made by Richard Clarke, then-National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism.
The opening stages of Operation Enduring Freedom were marked by an intensive ‘shock and awe’ aerial bombardment campaign. Having learned from bitter experience with journalists in Vietnam, the Pentagon from the outset of the Afghan campaign ‘embedded’ reporters with units whose members breathlessly reported the triumphs of the high-tech US war machine.
Pentagon reluctance to use sufficient American ‘boots in the ground’ to achieve success first occurred in the December 2001 battle for Tora Bora, following the previous month’s capture of Kabul, where Northern Alliance soldiers were used for front line cannon fodder, in lieu of US troops, as massive casualties would have led to negative publicity in the US and undercut support for the war.
The battle marked the first instance of the use of indigenous troops of questionable loyalty, in this case ethnic Tajik Northern Alliance forces battling the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. The prime objective of the battle was to capture Osama bin Laden, but he and other high-ranking al-Qaida slipped through the Northern Alliance lines, no doubt assisted by copious amounts of cash.
Rising civilian death toll
What has been notable since then is the rising death toll of Afghan civilians, caught between deadly western military high-tech and the more primitive but lethal Taliban.
That the Wikileaks materials underscore innocent civilian casualties underreported by the Pentagon spin machine is corroborated by no less an authority than General Stanley A McChrystal, who became the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan last year.
Before resigning on 28 June, McChrystal commented during a 26 March videoconference to answer questions from troops in the field about civilian casualties, “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”
As for the number of al-Qaida remaining in Afghanistan, during a 5 December CNN interview National Security Advisor General James Jones stated, “The good news that Americans should feel at least good about in Afghanistan is that the al-Qaeda presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country. No bases. No ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.”
On 27 June, during an interview on ABC News – This Week, CIA Director Leon Panetta corroborated Jones’ assessment, commenting that that al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan is now “relatively small,” adding, “I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less. It’s in that vicinity.”
Doing the math then, the US effort in Afghanistan means that with the completion of Obama’s surge to 130,000 troops, Washington is currently deploying 1,300 soldiers and a billion dollars for each remaining member of al-Qaida.
Wikileaks, the enemy?
That the Pentagon regards Wikileaks as the ‘enemy’ was evidenced by the appearance of a 32-page report, prepared in 2008 by the Army Counterintelligence Center and posted on Wikileaks. The New York Times confirmed the report’s authenticity, which warned that classified US military information appearing on Wikileaks could “influence operations against the U.S. Army by a variety of domestic and foreign actors.”
The report then went on to suggest that “criminal prosecution” of anyone leaking classified information could “deter others considering similar actions from using the Wikileaks.org Web site.” The report also discussed ways to undermine Wikileaks’ credibility.
While the Wikipedia documents have predictably outraged Washington’s red, white and blue chicken-hawks, the House of Representatives dutifully ignored them and subsequently approved the Obama Administration’s $59 billion emergency funding bill to keep the war going by a 308-114 vote, with Congressional hawks disregarding the material by arguing that the information was “outdated” because it was from late 2009 and earlier.
Justice and security
Assessing the impact of the documents, Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist and historian specializing on US war policy told ISN Security Watch, “The Wikileaks Afghanistan War documents are not just selected documents being leaked, but, quite deliberately, everything, passing through encrypted channels. That suggests that the person or people responsible were signaling to the military and civilian policymakers that they no longer can be assured of operational secrecy in a war that doesn’t have moral legitimacy.”
It remains to be seen what impact the Wikileaks revelations will have beyond the Beltway, especially as Washington has already trotted out the hoary ‘national security’ clichés and the US citizenry has been bludgeoned by nearly a decade of ‘support the troops’ rhetoric.
What is much harder to gauge is their impact in Pakistan, much less Afghanistan, where the documents merely confirm that the US has installed a corrupt regime that only survives by being propped up by overwhelming foreign military force.
Those in Washington with a sense of history might remember that, beyond the failure of virtually every foreign invasion of Afghanistan over the last 2,300 years, the Taliban rose as a force combating the rampant corruption of the Northern Alliance government established in the wake of the 1992 fall of the Soviet puppet regime of president Muhammad Najibullah. Administering rough justice in 1996 after capturing Kabul, the Taliban dragged Najibullah from the UN compound where he had sought sanctuary for four years and hanged him.
For the Taliban, undoubtedly the Wikileaks material of greatest interest concerns Task Force 373, a shadowy US Special Forces unit based in Kabul, Kandahar and Khost, whose existence has been rumored for quite some time. Their mission is to capture or kill Taliban and al-Qaida leaders without trial using a ‘kill or capture list,’ also known as Jpel, ‘joint prioritized effects list,’ which contains the names of 2,000 senior targets.
The Taliban promise both justice and security. The Wikileaks documents confirm that the regime of Hamid Karzai has failed to provide much of either, unless you believe that targeted assassination squads might, courtesy of the Pentagon.
Dr John CK Daly is a non-resident Fellow at John Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC.