The Wikileaks documents have hit Kabul like a small-scale nuclear explosion: from media analysts to shopkeepers, everyone is talking about the more than 90,000 classified reports on the Afghan war that have now been made public by the whistle blower website Wikileaks.org.
Already being compared to the Pentagon Papers, which blew the lid off the conspiracy of secrecy and misinformation surrounding the Vietnam war, the Afghan War Diary — as Wikileaks has titled the collection of reports — could well be a game-changer in the long and frustrating Afghan experiment.
Observers are already braced for reaction from the American public, whose support for the Afghan campaign is waning precipitously.
In Kabul, the public is expressing contradictory reactions. Many welcome the revelations of greater civilian casualties than previously reported, since they have felt that the deaths of Afghan noncombatants have too long been denied or buried. On the other hand, they worry that publishing the names of Afghans who have allegedly collaborated with the U.S. military will swell Taliban hit lists and endanger even more of their countrymen.
The Afghan War Diary purports to tell the real story of the long and brutal conflict that has consumed thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars over the past eight and a half years. Free from the public relations message to which battle reports are almost always subjected, the terse, unedited texts paint a grim picture of an army fighting in a country it knows poorly and understands even less.
Wikileaks is not shy about its purpose in releasing the data.
“The Afghan War Diary is the most significant archive about the reality of war to have ever been released during the course of a war,” wrote the Wikileaks team in its introduction to the documents. “The deaths of tens of thousands is normally only a statistic but the archive reveals the locations and the key events behind most of these deaths. We hope its release will lead to a comprehensive understanding of the war in Afghanistan and provide the raw ingredients necessary to change its course.”
Others, including the U.S. government, term the release of the documents “irresponsible,” saying that the data could well endanger U.S. and Afghan lives by revealing the names of those who have collaborated with the U.S. military.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange told the media that more than 15,000 of the documents have been held back for this very reason, to protect sources.
Special Forces operations do not figure prominently in the leaked documents. But there are several reports about the activities of Task Force 373, a shadowy assassination squad that was responsible, among other things, for an airstrike in 2007 that killed seven children in Paktika.
For Afghans, the Wikileaks data will confirm what they already know: they and their families are being killed in incidents that are often denied by the military and unreported in the media. This will also come as no surprise to any reporter who has covered civilian casualties in Afghanistan; airstrikes such as the one in Baghni, Helmand Province, on Aug. 2, 2007 make chilling reading for someone who covered the reality.
The military, according to the report, dropped six 2,000-pound bombs on a gathering of insurgents in Baghni Valley, "effectively destroying target locations." The military had information that high-value targets were present and they reported that between 70 and 100 fighters were killed, along with multiple commanders.
Instead, according to numerous reports from the ground, complete with photographs and testimony from local doctors, the “meeting” was actually a weekly market, and the victims were mostly civilians, including children. No high-value targets were confirmed dead.
Another major focus of the War Diary is Pakistan, which as Afghans have complained for years, is constantly interfering in Afghanistan, seeking to destabilize the situation for its own political goals — most having to do with its long-standing contretemps with India.
Some reports document alleged Pakistani involvement in high-level meetings with Taliban leaders. This strengthens the growing conviction, supported by a recent report from the London School of Economics, that Pakistan, particularly its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) is actively supporting the insurgency.
“At least now the world knows what is going on in Afghanistan,” said Abaceen Nasimi, a journalist in Kabul. “The military is saying these things in their own words. Civilians are being killed. The documents have exposed Pakistan’s involvement. Things we have been saying for years are now being published. This is a very big thing — 90,000 documents. The only question is, why are they doing it now?”
The source of the documents has not been made public; Assange is remaining silent on the subject. But there is little doubt that someone inside the military has decided to set the record straight.
The goal of the leaks is more difficult to determine. On the one hand, many feel that revelations of Pakistan’s duplicity and the murky actions of Special Task Force 373 might deepen the disaffection in the United States for the war and hasten the withdrawal of troops.
Others point to the poignancy of some of the reports, saying that the leaks may well drum up sympathy for an exhausted and often confused military, giving them, perhaps, a bit more time to accomplish their mission.
“These reports are a bit of an antidote to the Kabul Conference,” said Felix Kuehn, an author and researcher based in Kandahar. He was referring to last week’s international gathering in the Afghan capital, which sought to burnish the image of Karzai’s shaky government and fashion a perception of imminent progress in the war on terror and corruption in Afghanistan.
“The information coming out of the Kabul Conference was far removed from reality,” Kuehn said. “These reports paint a very bleak picture of what is going on in Afghanistan. It might buy the military a little time by showing how difficult the situation is here.”
But the documents should not be taken at face value, he cautioned. While incident reports are useful in comparing the military’s version of events to what eyewitnesses and other observers have to say, the “intelligence” documents are mostly hearsay.
“These are raw intelligence reports in many cases,” he said. “They are little better than the tales you hear on the street. No one knows at what level these reports were leaked. They have not been evaluated or edited, and in many cases may have very little credibility.”
But the real reports will matter less to Afghans and, perhaps, to the American public than the rumors and the hype surrounding them. The tsunami of data has overwhelmed even computer-savvy Afghan specialists, let alone a largely uneducated Afghan public. The man or woman on the street in Kabul will be relying on what they hear on television, radio, and in the bazaar to make their own assessments of the validity of the reports.
The media is more than happy to oblige. Television stations and radio programs are broadcasting little else.
“The talk is everywhere,” Nasimi said. “This could change everything.”