Op-Ed: Under the outrage of leaked Afghanistan docs is real information

Posted Jul 25, 2010 by Paul Wallis
The big spill of classified US documents by Wikileaks may not have enchanted the US military, political and intelligence communities, but it has served one useful purpose: A warts-and-all look which helps the public comprehend the issues.
I’ve been following Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion, have spoken to people from the area, and have also seen reports from Australian forces and others regarding some of the combat situations. The Wikileaks information made available (after all, could that possibly be the whole information base?) is basically a highlighter, interesting in detail but not adding a lot in substance.
The military security issues and naturally guarded, brief reports tend to result in bare outlines, not enough for more than a general and highly selective view at the whim of the news media we all adore so much. That’s a recipe for misconception, easily exploited by anti-US forces in the region, who can spread disinformation at will.
The US military operates a truly complex menagerie of operational systems in Afghanistan which is so complex it’s amazing it works at all, but it does, most of the time. Errors only are big news. The political setup since the Bush era has been an exercise in extreme tact regarding US regional allies. Their mistakes, which are apparently endless, are ironed down into low profile issues.
The real information in these leaks isn’t quite as obvious as it looks:
This report of a meeting between enemy leaders is an indicator of the merry relationships on the other side. Leaders, including Arabs and Waziris, show up with bodyguards, one with roughly a platoon of Arab fighters. It’s like something out of an old movie where bandit chieftains meet to discuss attacking the fort. One of them, a former ISI (Pakistani intelligence) chief, is conspicuous for his presence.
As you can see, this is practically a phone book’s worth of information, with leads all over it. The US is apparently well informed. The ISI and CIA both supported the Taliban against the Soviets, so it’s no great surprise that a former ISI operative shows up at the meeting. What’s surprising is that penetration of security of the meeting was so thorough.
A strike against an Al Qaeda leader and Arab fighters seems to have been micromanaged by checklist. Children were killed in the strike, mainly because they were forced to remain in the target area. The population are reported to seem pleased to be rid of the insurgents, if obviously unhappy about the kids.
The report may seem self-serving, but let’s face it, any positive information regarding the incident is hardly likely to penetrate the fog of war imposed by media on civilian casualties. The fact that these kids were put at risk is also unlikely to get much media space, largely thanks to what seems to be a very unfocused, expedient set of values about what constitutes news.
This type of incident shows the dilemma: The military tries to operate by the rules, as far as possible, against an opponent which is well known for putting civilians in harm’s way. Munitions don’t make moral judgments. People do, and they can make the wrong judgments if they’re given information in the wrong contexts.
Taken on face value, these reports are local information which is based on what’s known at the time they’re made. It’s possible to read too much into some, and miss information in others. The reports of Arab fighters from Libya, for example, mention a fact that has had no space at all in news media. The presence of Libyan fighters and others indicates at least some of the manpower for the Taliban is/was coming from outside, not Afghanistan. The foreign fighters are known to be trained in Iran and elsewhere, which is obviously a further political issue and complication for the US.
That also puts a very different complexion on the Taliban’s demand for the removal of all foreigners from Afghanistan, to start with. Their war is based on a premise which is as bogus as their claims to religious authority. The leaks show a lot of holes in the façade which the West should at least point out. These people are basically gangsters, more than fighters.
Ironically, Wikileaks has created a source of information which may clarify both the command and control issues for the US and the real nature of this incredibly ugly war. Intentionally or otherwise, the leaks will do more good than damage to US interests and credibility.