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.