Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Unflinching Look At Afghanistan: What Do the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diaries Really Reveal?

By Jasmine Heiss

On July 26, WikiLeaks released a huge cache of more than 75,000 secret US military reports covering the war in Afghanistan. The full compendium of over 91,000 reports, known as the Afghan War Diary, is being hailed as the most significant archive about the reality of a war to have ever been released during the course of a conflict.

Despite their significance, the reports aren’t exactly polished journalistic writing. They are generally written by field units who are answering critical questions: Who, When, Where, What, With Whom, by What Means, and Why. To help make sense of this raw intelligence, Reader Supported News has published a comprehensive everyman’s reading guide (beginning about halfway down the page). One of the most valuable insights that the Reader Supported News offers is the deeply rooted origin of cover-ups: “When reporting their own activities US Units are inclined to classify civilian kills as insurgent kills, downplay the number of people killed or otherwise make excuses for themselves,” they observe. “Conversely, when reporting on the actions of non-US ISAF forces the reports tend to be frank or critical and when reporting on the Taliban or other rebel groups, bad behavior is described in comprehensive detail.”

Wikileaks gave the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel, access to the reports before public release. In their respective articles, the three publications keyed in on different elements of the War Diaries: The Times, for example, highlighted the apparent double role of the Pakistani military. This sharply contrasts the picture of a harmonious alliance between the United States and Pakistan that has painted by Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton. The Guardian, on the other hand, emphasized the widespread concealment of civilian casualties, including comments from Human Rights Watch correspondent Rachel Reid. She believes that the reports should force the U.S. to adopt a more transparent approach to reporting. “Accountability,” says Reid “is not just something you do when you are caught. It should be part of the way the US and NATO do business in Afghanistan every time they kill or harm civilians."

These revelations might not warrant gasps of shock, however. In an incisive (and somewhat snarky) article written for wired.com, Spencer Ackerman asks if these observations – or anything revealed by the reports – is really new news. He points at the absence of any Mai Lai-esque smoking guns, reminding readers that what is secret isn’t necessarily damning. Ackerman doesn’t think that the reports are totally trivial, though – for him the devil is in the details. Like the Guardian, the Times, and Der Spiegel, he appreciates the cumulative effect of the Afghan War Diaries for its capacity to paint an unflinchingly honest portrait of Afghanistan – more precisely, of an Afghanistan in which U.S. forces are flailing and failing. The White House has condemned Wikileaks for the publication of the files, citing national security concerns. Although the source of the leak is not yet known, the Pentagon has already launched an investigation. Some suspect 22-year-old army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning. Manning, also known by his brash screen name “bradass87,” has already achieved dubious fame for leaking a 2007 video of a deadly American helicopter attack in Baghdad. Whether or not the War Diaries reveal new truths about the war in Afghanistan, they’re sure to cause a tightening up of the US intelligence sector. We can only hope that the comprehensive picture of the war’s past will have other effects, and help us reconceptualize the U.S’s role in its future.

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