Afghanistan: the Inside Story


The big news Monday morning (July 26) was about Wikileak’s latest feat: the release of nearly 92,000 secret incident and intelligence reports from US military files from Afghanistan for 2004-2009. The New York Times, the British Guardian, and the German weekly Der Spiegel received the files from Wikileaks. The news media is already referring to the episode as “the biggest leak in US military history.” I’m a fan and early supporter of Wikileaks. (Disclosure: I once recommended a Swahili translator to Julian Assange—founder and public face of Wikileaks–for a trove of Kenyan government documents). A full-time global nonprofit devoted to exposing official misconduct, malfeasance, and mendacity? Best thing to happen to journalism since the advent of the progressive news aggregator. In this case, however, the leaks tell the attentive monitor of the war very little that she didn’t already know. Ironically, this is also the view of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and of Afghan president Hamid Karzai (more about the White House reaction below). Further digging may turn up some surprises, but initial analysis points to confirmation of existing knowledge.    

The papers and the magazine have had the files for several weeks. The deal with Assange was that the outlets had to wait to publish stories on the files until Wikileaks was able to post them all on its website. The Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel each published multiple stories based on the documents on Monday. The leaked reports cover a wide swath of familiar events and operations from Operation Enduring Freedom: drone strikes, civilian deaths and the corresponding weak investigations or cover-ups, special forces rampages, official Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban, and more. We ‘learn’ that the alleged al-Qaeda and Taliban militants targeted for execution by drone or commando raid do not receive due process. We ‘learn’ that the number of drone strikes is up. We ‘learn’ that Taliban IEDs kill loads of civilians. We ‘learn’ that American servicemen were killed at remote and stupidly placed outposts that ought never to have existed. We ‘learn’ that Afghan National Army (ANA) units mistakenly opened fire on other ANA units. We ‘learn’ that Afghan policemen extort cash from truck drivers at checkpoints. We ‘learn’ that the US military command still conducts inadequate investigations of reports of civilian deaths. We ‘learn’ that the German government did not level with its public regarding threats faced by German troops in Kunduz.

Sure, there’s some news here: the Taliban now have surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The extent of alleged Pakistani intelligence (ISI) and Army support for and direction of the Afghan Taliban is broader and deeper than many of us suspected. But, again, nearly all the documents reported on thus far merely confirm what any critical-thinking observer of the war already knew.

The White House ignored Der Spiegel’s request for comment prior to the deadline for its print edition. Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Advisor for Communications, finally responded to a few written questions on Saturday evening (July 24), but refused an interview. Rhodes made three main points: (1) the President and his team have repeatedly complained about the save havens for the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan; (2) most of these documents are from the Bush era (four years of Bush, nine months of Obama; Rhodes’ boss, General Jim Jones, later made the same point about the age of the files); and (3) the leaks “put the lives of US and partner service members at risk and threatens our national security.” About his last point: no they don’t. Wikileaks, both papers, and the magazine took pains to redact names of sources, prisoners, and even buildings. We do not learn the radio frequencies used by insurgents, nor their telephone numbers. Only the names of public figures remain. Jones’ and Gibbs’ trivializing the files as outdated omits the fact that Obama ordered two surges during the period covered by the documents (one in February 2009, and the other in December 2009). And if they’re outdated, then how do they pose a threat to national security?  The White House was adamant that the “irresponsible leaks” will not “impact our ongoing commitment to deepen our partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan; to defeat our common enemies; and to support the aspirations of the Afghan and Pakistani people.” Now there’s a threat to national security for you.

Even if we don’t learn that much new from the files, their release is still an important public service due to the vast ignorance of elected officials and the general public about the conduct of the war. May the leak help slay ignorance, and speed up the day when all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

STEVE BREYMAN teaches “War in Afghanistan” at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu







Steve Breyman is a former William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the US State Department. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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