The unprecedented release of thousands of classified documents on Afghanistan this week tells us what we already know about the nearly 9-year-old war: Afghanistan government officials are corrupt, Pakistan’s intelligence service betrayed the U.S., the Taliban are ruthless guerilla warriors, and our soldiers are weary of fighting them.
As Geoff Morrell, spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, put it, “This information, though new and unprecedented in the scope and the sheer size of this leak, the information itself—the substance, the content of these documents—is not particularly new or illuminating. It points to issues that we’ve identified as being problem areas for months if not years.”
But conservative hawks who want to win in Afghanistan and to stop Iran’s nuke program will find a few gems in the pile to bolster their cases.
First, there is plenty of reporting on Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) aiding the Taliban. Though not a new public disclosure, perhaps the jolt of documents will finally spur Islamabad to clean out the ISI militants.
On Iran, there is plenty of intelligence reporting on Iran aiding the Taliban and al Qaeda-linked groups in Pakistan. Taken together with the fact Iran is also arming Shi’ite insurgents in Iraq for the sole purpose of killing Americans, the case is made that Iran is a determined U.S. enemy that should not be permitted the build nuclear weapons.
The leak is not just significant for the sheer number of raw field intelligence reports and embassy cables. It underscores the growing power of the Internet over traditional news media, as newspaper circulation dives and Internet traffic skyrockets.
It was not the New York Times or another liberal organ that got the documents. It was a new Internet web page called Wikileaks, which exhorts government officials to, well, leak.
Once in possession of what it calls the “Afghan War Diary,” Wikileaks anointed three liberal favorites—the Times, the British newspaper The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel—to publish stories on the same day the web page posted its loot. Journalism’s big shots went begging for a story from an Internet start-up.
Wikileaks’ actual creators and finances are not as transparent as its standards for governments and corporations to tell all. Julian Assange, an Australian journalist, is often presented as its founder.
“It is the role of good journalists to take on powerful abuses,” Assange told the Guardian in a video that accompanied its Afghanistan story. “And when powerful abuses are taken on, there’s always a bad reaction. In this case we show you the true nature of this war.”
Assange assumes too much praise for himself. Virtually everything the raw intelligence reports discuss have been reported in some manner over the past nine years by brave, dogged reporters embedded with NATO troops.
The American public knew the war was going badly. That is why President Obama drew up a new strategy and put in more troops. The public knew Afghan civilians were getting caught up in fire fights and air strikes and being killed. That’s why the recently fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal imposed restrictions on troops storming houses and on pilots dropping bombs.
One of Assange’s claimed “firsts” is the existence of Task Force 373, a collection of special operations forces who kill or capture top enemy commanders. How does Assange think a military defeats a terrorist organization? You take out the leadership, either from the air or on the ground.
Secondly, the tactic is not a secret. In Iraq, the military went so far as to create a public deck of cards of the most wanted—including Saddam Hussein.
Thirdly, the existence of the task force was already known. I wrote about it in March 2004 in The Washington Times. Then it was called Task Force 11. The one in Iraq was called Task Force 121.
Assange also said, “Militaries keep information secret … to hide abuses.”
Sometimes that is true. But they also do it to protect sources and methods. Assange has assumed the duties of a declassifier without regard for the damage it may do to our troops.
Said the Pentagon’s Morrell, “Our focus really, frankly, right now is to try to determine if there is anything in these 90,000 pages of documents that could indeed endanger our forces. We’ve got a team doing that ’round the clock. This was dumped on us, like it was dumped on you all, Sunday night. It would have been nice had this organization had the decency to come to us and work with us to try to figure out if there’s anything in here that could endanger our forces, but we were not given that luxury.”
One example: Assange released an intelligence report on a Taliban funeral during which a top commander delivered a pep talk and tried to recruit followers by saying horrible things about Americans. It is highly unlikely that the commander invited our military to the service. What is more likely is that the U.S. had a spy. Now, the Taliban can think back to that ceremony and perhaps isolate the most likely suspects.
On Iran, one embassy cable tells of former Taliban government officials who formed hit squads in 2005 inside Iran and planned to attack Americans in Southern Afghanistan. Not only did Iran provide the safe haven, it also offered bounties to members of the squads—$1,740 for each Afghan soldier killed and $3,481 for any government official killed.
Iran was a safe haven for other murderers. A 2009 intelligence report said about 100 Taliban fighters and 15 Chechens passed through Iran to enter Afghanistan for the purpose of conducting suicide bombings in Kabul.
Iran has also put members of the Afghan parliament on Tehran’s payroll in an effort to control the politics in Kabul.
A 2007 embassy cable states, “Over the past several months, Iran has taken a series of steps to expand and deepen its influence in Afghanistan. Afghan contacts point to …. the discovery of Iranian weapons in Afghanistan …. its control of media outlets and its growing cultural influence, and alleged direct financial support to members of Parliament as troubling evidence.”
Ironically, the biggest leak, by volume, of classified material in U.S. history came just a few weeks after Defense Secretary Gates issued a memo promising to prosecute any employee who released secrets.
The Obama Administration’s reaction: decry the leak, vow to finder the leaker and dump on former President George W. Bush.
“The fact that these are in many cases documents that are several years old does not change our concern that this action risks our national security,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
“We have a very robust investigation that’s underway to try to determine who’s responsible for breaking the law here and leaking this classified information that could endanger the lives of our forces and imperil our nation’s security,” Morrell told CBS news.