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The logs of war: Do the Wikileaks documents really tell us anything new?

The logs of war: Do the Wikileaks documents really tell us anything new?

Three news organizations — the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel – today published explosive reports on a treasure trove of more than 91,000 documents that were obtained by Wikileaks, the self-proclaimed whistleblower site.

I’ve now gone through the reporting and most of the selected documents (though not the larger data dump), and I think there’s less here than meets the eye. The story that seems to be getting the most attention, repeating the longstanding allegation that Pakistani intelligence might be aiding the Afghan insurgents, offers a few new details but not much greater clarity. Both the Times and the Guardian are careful to point out that the raw reports in the Wikileaks archive often seem poorly sourced and present implausible information.

"[F]or all their eye-popping details," writes the Guardian‘s Declan Walsh, "the intelligence files, which are mostly collated by junior officers relying on informants and Afghan officials, fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity."

The Times‘ reporters seem somewhat more persuaded, noting that "many of the reports rely on sources that the military rated as reliable" and that their sources told them that "the portrait of the spy agency’s collaboration with the Afghan insurgency was broadly consistent with other classified intelligence."

Der Spiegel‘s reporting adds little, though the magazine’s stories will probably have great political impact in Germany, as the Wikileaks folks no doubt intended. One story hones in on how an elite U.S. task force charged with hunting down Taliban and Al Qaeda targets operates from within a German base; another alleges that "The German army was clueless and naïve when it stumbled into the conflict," and that northern Afghanistan, where the bulk of German troops are based, is more violent than has been previously portrayed.

Otherwise, I’d say that so far the documents confirm what we already know about the war: It’s going badly; Pakistan is not the world’s greatest ally and is probably playing a double game; coalition forces have been responsible for far too many civilian casualties; and the United States doesn’t have very reliable intelligence in Afghanistan.

I do think that the stories will provoke a fresh round of Pakistan-bashing in Congress, and possibly hearings. But the administration seems inclined to continue with its strategy of nudging Pakistan in the right direction, and is sending the message: Move along, nothing to see here.

A U.S. military official in Islamabad told the American Forces Press Service: "The Pakistani military deserves our respect, and frankly, they deserve our support." Special Representative Richard Holbrooke endorsed the recent warming of ties between Islamabad and Kabul. In his statement condeming the leak of the documents, National Security Advisor Jim Jones said, "[T]he Pakistani government – and Pakistan’s military and intelligence services – must continue their strategic shift against insurgent groups." And finally, the White House sent around an eight-page document containing examples of President Obama and other U.S. officials urging Pakistan to turn decisively against the militants.

The other message coming from the administration, as noted in an email from White House spokesman Tommy Vietor, is: It’s not our fault. "The period of time covered in these documents (January 2004-December 2009) is before the President announced his new strategy. Some of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the President ordered a three month policy review and a change in strategy," Vietor wrote in an email published by the Times.

In this case, I’d say that’s spin I can believe in.