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Special Report - The War Log Leaks
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2 Aug 2010 EST

- by Vivekananda Nemana, Staff Writer; Image:  An Afghan soldier (left) meets with his U.S. counterpart (right) in this picture, representing a relationship that is still unknown by many and which the recent Wikileaks reports may shed some light on

Just over a week ago, three major newspapers and an organization called Wikileaks published the biggest military leak in history; 92,000 pages of military documents revealing what’s going wrong in the Afghanistan war. That is, 92,000 pages of a raw, unbridled narrative—often told from the perspective of those on the ground—about the civilian killings, double crossings and mismanagement that are pulling the war effort apart at the seams.  The so-called “War Logs” archive spans from January 2004 through December 2009, and was given to the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel a month in advance by Wikileaks, which collects and publishes classified information from unnamed sources—and is outside the jurisdiction of subpoenas to reveal the sources’ identity.

That things in Afghanistan are not going well—that Pakistan is actually supporting the Taliban, that over a thousand American soldiers have been killed, that too many civilians are dying—is not seriously revelatory news in itself.  What was surprising, however, was the level of detail that the reports contained.

They listed specific names of Pakistani officials who were supporting the Taliban, and specific times and places where blunders occurred.  They detailed how a "black" unit of special forces solely to capture or kill suspected Taliban leaders without a trial operates, how the military covered up the Taliban acquisition of surface-to-air missiles from Pakistan, how an escalation of roadside IEDS led to the deaths of over 2,000 civilians.  They express with tormented specificity how coalition troops, presumably driven by the fog of war, shot unarmed motorists to preemptively protect themselves from suicide bombers.

Once, French troops shot at a bus full of children and wounded eight. Another time, American troops machine-gunned a separate bus and took 15 casualties.

One Hamid Gul, a retired Pakistani general and once head of the country’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, is mentioned repeatedly in the reports.  A man who reportedly keeps his military connections fresh, General Gul is accused of ordering IED attacks against international forces in Afghanistan in December 2006, and of meeting with Taliban leaders in secret “strategy” sessions.

If that’s not nerve-wrenching enough, Gul’s actions also damn the Pakistani military by association. As the New York Times wrote, “General Gul is mentioned so many times in the reports, if they are to be believed, that it seems unlikely that Pakistan’s current military and intelligence officials could not know of at least some of his wide-ranging activities.”

For his part, General Gul has denied the allegations, calling them “malicious, fictitious and preposterous” to the Christian Science Monitor.  He even alleged that the massive leak was orchestrated deliberately by the United States government, in order to draw attention away from its failures in Afghanistan.  But the three newspapers that received the reports conducted extensive fact-checking and found most to be true.  And in any case, should General Gul actually have maintained ties with the Taliban, it is highly unlikely that he would do anything but deny that connection.

A pervasive theme in the War Logs is the extent to which the United States was aware of double dealings by Pakistani authorities. The ISI is mentioned in at least 190 reports and is accused of backing the Taliban while Pakistan accepts nearly $1 billion in annual aid from the United States.  Earlier this month, a top Indian security official said the ISI controlled and coordinated the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed at least 173 people.

The United States government, however, has continuously denied that Pakistan maintained ties with terrorists—or in other words, that the US was essentially shooting itself in the foot.  Almost immediately after the publication of the War Logs, the White House released a statement written by National Security Advisor General James Jones, who insisted that the leak would not impact the partnership with Pakistan.  He also took pains to clarify that the reports refer entirely to the Afghan War during the Bush era, and that the situation has changed significantly under the Obama administration. 

Still, he gave what seemed to be a diplomatically subtle warning to Pakistan, saying, “Yet the Pakistani government must continue their strategic shift against insurgent groups.  The balance must shift decisively against al Qaeda and its external allies. U.S. support for Pakistan will continue to be focused on building Pakistani capacity to root out violent extremist groups, while supporting the aspirations of the Pakistani people.”  With those words, General Jones may have suggested the White House’s displeasure with Pakistani authorities.

But the statement’s most obvious purpose was to express the White House’s displeasure with Wikileaks.  General Jones condemned the website for endangering the lives of American troops (even though the information is at least seven months old) and for not contacting the White House beforehand. Wikileaks has a strained relationship with the United States government, ever since they released a video in May shot from an Apache helicopter as it gunned down two Reuters journalists in Baghdad.  It soon turned out that the Pentagon had hatched a plan to shut down the website by hunting all those who had leaked it information, and also to capture its founder, an Australian named Julian Assange.

But Assange has adapted to the perils his job brings him.  He has so far successfully hidden from the authorities, while continuing to work and publically defend his work.  In a press conference in London last Monday, Assange countered White House criticism and said the material was no longer of operational consequence, even though it would be of investigational importance.  Thousands of war crimes might have been committed in Afghanistan, he said, and the leaked documents would help illuminate the public’s understanding of the past six years of war.  He also added that he expected whistleblowing to increase substantially in the future, emboldened by the largest military leak in history.

Assange’s decision to release the documents, first to the three newspapers and then to the public at large, has provoked meditations by media thinkers about investigative reporting and the new media landscape.  By preemptively handing the information to the newspapers, Wikileaks effectively forced a major story to break in the traditional press, while counterbalancing traditional reporting with the full, unfiltered set of reports it made available on the web.  This way, the public had access to the analysis, background and verification offered by newspapers as well as to anything in the raw data the papers may have overlooked—augmenting the story’s power.

However, the story might be so big that it could potentially change nothing at all.  As NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen wrote on his blog PressThink:  “The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system.  But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible?  What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works… and often fails to work?”

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