Are the WikiLeaks War Docs Overhyped Old News?
Longtime Afghanistan watchers are diving into Wikileaks’ huge trove of unearthed U.S. military reports about the war. And they’re surfacing, as we initially did, with pearls of the obvious and long-revealed. Andrew Exum, an Afghanistan veteran and Center for a New American Security fellow, compared the quasi-revelations about (gasp!) Pakistani intelligence sponsorship of Afghan insurgents and (shock-horror!) Special Operations manhunts to news that the Yankees may have lost the 2004 American League pennant. It’s a fair point, but it conceals what’s really valuable about the leaked logs: they’re a real-time account of how the U.S. let Afghanistan rot.
For one thing — and this supports Exum’s argument — many, if not most, of these documents are frontline reports. They don’t pretend to be about anything more than what a unit encounters in its small patch of the war zone. That both clarifies the focus of individual reports and limits the degree to which any analyst can responsibly extrapolate them into clear trends. “Raw intelligence is rarely decisive,” notes a smart senior military officer who asked for anonymity, “and certainly not indicative of anything meaningful until passed through a more calibrated hypothesis or thesis.”
It’s a helpful caveat. We won’t pretend to have waded through any more than a slice of the 77,000 reports released thus far by WikiLeaks. But so far, there’s no My Lai, no No Gun Ri, no smoking gun linking al-Qaeda to the Boston Red Sox. And some of the heavy-breathing accounts surrounding the documents don’t really match what the logs say. “Taliban sympathisers listening in to top-secret phone calls of US-led coalition,” pants the Guardian. But: “At this time, it is doubtful insurgents have the technical ability to eavesdrop on conversations,” according to the report that the Guardian cites to justify its headline.
Adds a former intelligence contractor who used to produce intelligence summaries, “There will be a lot of interesting tidbits but nothing earthshaking.” And it’s those “interesting tidbits” that makes the WikiLeaks trove significant. There’s a bias in journalism toward believing that what’s secret is inherently a hive of hidden truth. That operating principle animates reporters’ practice of breaking down governmental secrecy. But it can also create a misleading expectation that leaks represent huge new revelations. And when those revelations don’t manifest, it creates an expectation that the trove is neither useful nor significant. In this case, that would be a mistake.
We’ll have more later today on whether some of the detail WikiLeaks presents actually compromises operational security. When remembering that we’re looking through a soda straw and not a wide-angle lens, the WikiLeaks trove looks a lot like a daily diary of the deterioration of the Afghanistan war. Worried about friendly-fire incidents? Here’s a collection of them. How did U.S. troops fighting in eastern Afghanistan perceive their mission and the environment in which they fought? Here are 38,000 answers. How far have the Afghan security forces come over these years, and how arduous will it be to train them to take over for U.S. and NATO forces by 2014, as President Karzai desires? Here are some indications.
Whether they add up to more than the sum of their parts is a judgment. For a judicious consideration, check out Gregg Carlstrom’s distillation at al-Jazeera. “Taken together, they certainly paint a gloomy picture of the war effort in Afghanistan,” Gregg writes. That may not be new — no one who’s paid even casual attention to Afghanistan thinks the war is going well — but just because something isn’t new doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
Then there’s the prospect that the leaks themselves could reinforce poor intelligence habits in coalition warfare. Figuring out who actually gave Wikileaks access to all these reports may be a fruitless endeavor. But intelligence bureaucracies have a habit of responding to breaches with clenching up. Our anonymous U.S. military officer fears the operational outcome of these leaks will be to do “very severe, if not irreperable damage, to the manner of intelligence sharing between our NATO allies and ourselves.”
From the U.S.’s perspective, it’ll be up to Major General Michael Flynn, General Petraeus’ top intelligence officer in Afghanistan, to set a tone for continued intelligence sharing here. Maybe his response turn up on Wikileaks. That’ll certainly be news.
Photo: Lily Mihalik/Wired.com
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