Written by Amy Davidson for The New Yorker
(Despite their protests that Wiki Leaks has endangered soldiers, could it also be THIS is why they are so mad about the leaks?-LTS)
Last September, an assessment of the war in Afghanistan, by the American commander General Stanley McChrystal, was leaked to the press. The timing was not incidental. President Obama was trying to make up his mind about what kind of war he wanted to wage, for how long, and with how many soldiers. McChrystal had a definite opinion: the best way to win was to send forty-five thousand more troops to Afghanistanthe sooner the better.
That same month, American soldiers in Balkh Province, in the north of Afghanistan, were planning a search-and-clear operation. It was not going well. According to a report written by a member of Task Force Warrior, a unit of the 10th Mountain Division, local civilians would not coate, whereupon Afghan soldiers and policemen harassed and beat them. The areas residents had a negative opinion of their nations security forces, the writer noted. A police district commander…
…is reported to have had forcible sexual contact with a 16 ye old AC [Afghan civilian] female. When AC from the area went to complain to the ANP [Afghan National Police] district commander about the incident, the district commander ordered his body guard to open fire on the AC. The body guard refused at which time the district commander shot him in front of the AC.
This dispatch was one of some seventy-six thousand classified American military documents, mostly field reports, released online by WikiLeaks, an organization committed to making secrets public. (The group says that, at the insistence of its source, it delayed the publication of fifteen thousand other documents as part of a harm minimization process; still, the names of some Afghan informants were posted.) WikiLeaks gave the Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel an advance look at the entire archive, which covers events from January, 2004, to December, 2009, in every corner of Afghanistan.
Almost immediately, a consensus emerged that little in the files was actually secret or new. There is something to that. We did know, in a general sense, much of what they document: that the regime of President Hamid Karzai is corrupt and unpopular, that Pakistans Inter-Services Intelligence agency has ties to the Taliban, that too many civilians are dying. There had been reports, including some in this magazine, of targeted killings. And we knew that the Afghan security forces were a disaster, even after we had spent twenty-seven billion dollars to train them. But knowing specifically what happened to a sixteen-year-old girl and to the man who stood up to her alleged rapistand knowing that her attacker may have been in a position to do what he did because he was backed by our troops and our moneyis different.
And what do we still not know? The documents are labelled in various ways, among them whether an incident involved an enemy or a friend. The Balkh report is marked enemy, and it does mention insurgents killing a motorist. But the designation, of this and many of the other reports, raises a larger question: Do we know who in Afghanistan is our enemy and who is our friend? Al Qaeda is our enemy, of course, but after that the lines get blurry. Is a police chief who might chase insurgents one day but creates more of them by alienating the civilian population the next our enemy or our friend? When our soldiers go to the chiefs village and are met with hostility, whose fight are they walking into?
The Afghan security forces apparently cant tell their friends from their enemies, either. In February, 2008, according to one report, an Afghan policeman was in the public shower smoking hash when two Afghan National Army guys walked in. That sounds like the setup for a joke, but the punch line wasnt funny: the policeman felt threatened and a fire fight occurred. In September, 2007, Afghan soldiers went looking for five policemen who had abandoned their post and, minutes later, brought one of them back with a bullet in his head. Their story is that they tried to fire a warning shot and accidentally hit [the policeman], the report notes. The areas entire police force was then withdrawn to prevent an attempted honor killing. Both shootings are categorized as friendly fire.
If the problem were just undisciplined local units, then a solution that McChrystal advocatedmore money and more trainingmight have a chance. So might a recent plan to set up another police force. But the confusion of friends and enemies goes much deeper. We pay Pakistan a billion dollars a year to fight the Taliban and other insurgents, and yet the WikiLeaks archive is riddled with reports like one from May, 2007, about the I.S.I. sending the Haqqani network, which regularly attacks American forces, 1000 motorcycles for suicide bombers. More fundamentally, our counterinsurgency strategy relies on strengthening Karzaiour friend and ally, as Obama referred to him in May. But many Afghan civilians dont regard him as their friend, and they associate us with his failings. Karzais own friends include dubious warlords, who serve in his government; his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, the provincial council leader in Kandahar Province, is allegedly involved in criminal enterprises. (He has denied it.)
Last week, the White House stressed that much had changed in the seven months since the final entry in the WikiLeaks files. And that is true: we are now more deeply enmeshed in Afghanistan. Obama has doubled the number of troops there, and more are dyingmore than sixty were killed in July, the highest monthly toll for Americans since the war began. McChrystal was fired in June, but Obama emphasized that his successor, David Petraeus, would pursue the same strategy. An experiment in being stern about high-level corruption ended with Karzai musing about joining the Taliban and the Administration backing down. Karzais initial reaction to the files bespeaks a sense of impunity. His spokesman, Waheed Omar, was asked whether there was anything in the leaked documents that angered Mr. Karzai or that he thought unfair, the Times reported. No, I dont think so, Omar said.
Some American observers similarly implied that the lack of broad revelations rendered the contents of the files insignificant. In an Op-Ed for the Times, Andrew Exum, a former Army officer and adviser to McChrystal, wrote that one might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. The Washington Post reported that a dismissive attitude dominated the national security think tanks. The Wall Street Journal noted, in an editorial, Among the many nonscoops in the documents, we learn that war is hell. The prevailing view in those quarters was that there is no alternative: this is the war we have. But perhaps the leaked documents will persuade us to challenge that sense of resignation. We could re귡mine other proposals, like the one for a pared-down campaign narrowly focussed on hunting Al Qaedaa plan that McChrystals leaked report helped quash. We might even decide, nine years after our arrival, that it is time to leave Afghanistan.