The National Catholic Review

On July 25, the digital gadflies at WikiLeaks.org offered up their latest e-coup, what WikiLeaks is calling the Afghan War Diaries. It is 91,000 documents from the mundane to the heartbreaking that trace the daily, violent trudge through the frustrating tactical maze that our nation-building adventure in Afghanistan became between the years 2004 and 2010. The reports, written by soldiers and intelligence officers, mainly describe military actions executed by U.S. and Taliban forces, but the data dump also includes intelligence gathered on Taliban forces, Afghan politicians and the machinations of our Pakistan “ally.”

WikiLeaks is already notorious because of a number of web publications of documents and video that have proved embarrassing to multiple, notable parties—most spectacularly the leaked gun camera footage of the 2007 killing of two Reuters photographers and Iraqi civilians who were mistaken for Sunni insurgents. This massive document dump of classified material has already generated outrage from the Obama administration and U.S. military even as it has encouraged thousands of average U.S. citizens to pore over the documents for an unprecedented glimpse of the real war on terror in Afghanistan.

As political theater, the war diaries may not quite match the shock and awe of the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971; the U.S. public is already familiar with the broad outlines of the disheartening reality these dispatches from the endless war front portray. But it does serve to confirm some of the worst suspicions of Afghan skeptics while offering up in depressing detail evidence of the corruption of the ineffectual Karzai regime, the dysfunction within the Afghan military and security apparatus and the tragic stories of the civilians caught in the middle of this war and the disconcerting efforts of our own authorities to downplay or gloss over their suffering. Some revelations include the duplicity of our Pakistan allies, who accept billions in U.S. military aid even as they strategize with Taliban insurgents, and the surprising war making capacity of the Afghan insurgents, who have demonstrated tenacity, technical skill and have even managed to field heat-seeking missiles to neutralize U.S. aircraft.

The founders of WikiLeaks and their so-far anonymous informant (though suspicion is naturally focused on Private Bradley E. Manning) have been predictably attacked for endangering the war effort—and it is obviously regrettable if some of the information released puts U.S. forces or informants into harm’s way—but it is worth considering which is more outrageous: the release of these documents or that so much of this information and the dysfunction it depicts should have been kept from the public for so long. Who is violating the public trust, after all? Those who find a way to produce the information the public should have had in its hands or those who seek to keep citizens in the dark about the state of the war in Afghanistan? In an era of embedded journalism where the truth about the daily events in Afghanistan is pretty much whatever the Pentagon says it is, these action reports provide a powerful counterbalance to the narrative our political and military leaders prefer to promote. Would it not be in the public interest for a discussion to begin on why much of this information is casually classified by military censors? It was perhaps no coincidence that the leak was staged just as Congress debated the extension of $37 billion in supplemental financing to continue the war in Afghanistan, ultimately voting to approve the new appropriation.

The Obama administration is sticking to a script that dismisses these reports as old news: emphasizing its purportedly new strategy for winning the war, better resources and improved relationship with our undependable, if well financed allies in Pakistan. But is there really anything new in our effort to make sensible this war in Afghanistan? Have U.S. strategists settled on clear-cut goals and a firm and feasible exit strategy beyond picking a date to presumably begin a withdrawal? More to the point, with our own economy so shaky and billions being stripped away in services and investments in our citizenship to close state and federal deficits, are we really in a position to continue to prosecute a war whose outcomes are so uncertain?

WikiLeaks does not answer such questions for us, but its Afghan War Diaries makes a good start to begin a renewed and disciplined dialogue about the costs and benefits of the nation’s increasingly untenable strategy in Afghanistan.

Comments

Anonymous | 8/1/2010 - 5:13pm
David,


I heard a discussion of this the other night with an officer back from Afghanistan and supposedly most of the leaked material is ''thoughts'' or initial reactions after a mission  This is then put into a computer for large numbers to access so that others can then make an intelligence assessment.  Thus, the material compromised was widely available to a large number of the military and was not to be considered reliable intelligence but only initial reactions. It obviously contains lots of facts.
Anonymous | 7/29/2010 - 5:13pm
There has been open discussion of the hopelessness of the Afghan military fight with the Taliban for almost 2 years now.  One of the failures of the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration is the empowering of Karzai.  In reality there is no Afghan country but a geographic space that was put together at some time long ago and consists of disparate ethnic groups that have one thing in common, their religion.

But they harbored a potential lethal terrorist threat so what do you do.  That threat is still there.  It just moved across the border to a place no one controls and which the US cannot go.  So we send predator to bomb local terrorist encampments and because they live with people, kill non terrorist at the same time.  It is a war that has never been fought before with IED's, suicide bombers, no uniforms, using innocent people as shields etc.  The answer lies some place but no one knows where it is.  It is an unknown unknown.
Anonymous | 7/29/2010 - 9:54pm
I was just listening to some commentary on this and essentially there is a lot of people who will die because of this and any attempt to gain trust with others in the future will go down the drain.  The people we are fighting are not very nice people and getting help to fight them means that the enemy does not know.  They will kill their families as well as them just to issue a warning.  Some people just do not know what the consequences of their actions are.  Maybe they do not care.
JIM MCCREA | 7/29/2010 - 7:47pm
Americans simply haven't learned the difference between "want to know" and "need to know."
 
God help the leaker if subsequent deaths can be directly attributable to this information being made public.

There are way too many people in this country who haven't served in the military in parts of the world where violent conflicts rage.  They haven't been faced with the fatal consequences that can come from stupidity.
Gabriel Marcella | 7/29/2010 - 7:10pm
Kevin,
Your statement that "it is obviously regrettable if some of the information released puts U.S. forces or informants into harm’s way" truly understates the significance of the leaked documents. Afghanis who worked with us will be killed, those that need to work with us will be reluctant to do so, American soldiers and civilians will be killed, and people in foreign countries that need to work with us in the future will now question whether having their names on a website is the kiss of death. Much of what the United States does abroad  is based on trust and building respect across nations and governments. If that trust is broken we will lose, and so will the values that we stand for around the globe. Let's recall the trust that we built up with people that  we later abandoned, such as the Hungarian people in 1956. Moreover, the American soldier or soldiers who leaked the documents committed crimes against American law. How about some commentary on the ethics as well as the psychology of leakers? Are they heroes or traitors?