Terms of Engagement

Documents of Mass Destruction

So what if the WikiLeaks revelations aren't the Pentagon Papers redux? They still do deep damage to President Obama's case for continuing the war.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

There’s a good reason why history teachers — and I am one — assign our students primary source material: The distinctive sound of that voice, from that place and that time, offers us an insight, or an intuition, that explanation alone cannot afford. If you want to know war, read soldiers’ letters home. Or watch Restrepo. Or plow through the clotted acronyms of the 92,000 incident records from Afghanistan unearthed this week by WikiLeaks.

What is it that this vast trove of raw material tells us that we didn’t know before? Already it has become a truism that the documents add little that is new, at least for those few people who spend all their time thinking about such things. And yes, the intelligence data reproduced there is second- or third-hand, and often comes from a single, generally unreliable source. And Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder and one-man band, views the war as a criminal enterprise and leaked the documents to "prove" it. (I heard Assange speak earlier this year, and I practically gagged on his smug self-righteousness.)

All that is true, and yet the documents matter, for much the same reason that televised images of the Vietnam War or the civil rights struggle mattered. They will make many people feel in their bones what they merely knew, or perhaps didn’t know at all, before. This, in turn, will darken — indeed, already has darkened — the debate. The revelations will not force President Obama’s hand, but they will narrow his options.

What the documents "say" will depend in part on how readers experience them. I first encountered them in Monday’s New York Times. This was very, very clever of the diabolical Mr. Assange. Unlike the clip of Iraqi civilians mistakenly killed by a helicopter gunship that WikiLeaks released earlier this year, the Afghanistan documents are too massive, and too cryptic, to be self-explicating. The primary material had to be filtered, and rendered meaningful, by a trustworthy secondary source — i.e., America’s newspaper of record. The Times’ twin headlines offered a brutal summation: "Pakistani Spy Unit Aiding Insurgents, Reports Suggest," and "Unvarnished Look at Hamstrung Fight." What the documents said — or rather, what the Times said the documents said — was, "It’s even worse than we thought."

I then spent some time paddling in the vast sea of WikiLeaks’ dedicated webpage in order to encounter the material directly. This proved slightly bewildering. I couldn’t even find any of the damning material on Pakistani intelligence, since none of the documents are coded that way. Selecting documents according to the category to which a soldier in the field assigned it — "murder" or "enemy action" — only served as a reminder that the overwhelming majority of events in a war are confusing, open-ended, inconsequential. The one thing that stood out was the enormous number of documents coded "blue-white" — coalition forces encountering civilians — or "green-green" — Afghan security forces encountering one another. Here were the sickening consequences of the fog of war.

The most user-friendly format I’ve found so far is a list of 300 "key incidents" compiled by the Guardian and laid out in a spreadsheet. The guideposts allow the reader to discern meaning in the mass.

Here’s Incident 85, coded as "enemy action": "Dutch direct fire on an apparent enemy target in support of a village under Taliban attack ended tragically.  Four villagers engaged in the fight to defend Chenartu were killed and another seven wounded. The Dutch have launched an official investigation and have engaged in a proactive public relations campaign to prevent political fallout here and in the Netherlands. Although the decision to fire was justified, the danger is that, having had this action go awry, they will hesitate in the future with negative consequences for security in the province." The Hobson’s choice: Go hard and risk killing civilians, enraging both Afghans and the home front, or go easy and give the Taliban free rein.

Another theme is Afghan security forces fighting one another, not by accident but on purpose: "On 21 May 08 at approximately 1700L an ANP soldier at a bazaar got into a fight with two national defense soldiers (NDS). The ANP returned to the ANPP HQ Compound to retrieve his AK-47." The intelligence officials had a heavy machine gun mounted on their vehicle, and in the ensuing firefight the police officer was killed. "Primary focus was separating the two and creating a truce between ANP and NDS leadership." Other such incidents lead to civilian casualties as well.

Then there’s the notorious material about the ISI, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. Some reports sound loopy, but others seem highly plausible, both to the reporting officer and to the reader: "Credible reporting dated 22 Mar 08, indicated attacks against civil engineers and workers building roads in NIMRUZ Province are being planned. In one particular case, it was reported that the ISI ordered Serajuddin HAQQANI to eliminate Indian nationals working in AFGHANISTAN, in exchange for amounts between 15,000 and 30,000 USD. According to the same report, TB are also planning to kidnap doctors, officers (NFI), engineers and labourers who work on the roads between ZARANI and DELARAM." Each incident is questionable; it’s the cumulative effect that is devastating. And this is true as well of the reports of civilian deaths at traffic checkpoints, or incompetence and corruption on the part of Afghan security forces.

In days and weeks to come, readers will be encountering this material in a million different formats, cross-indexed by degree of stupidity or brutality or absurdity; there’s bound to be an iPhone app before long. The documents will infiltrate the way Americans, and of course the Dutch and everyone else, think about the war. People who view the conflict as a form of neocolonial gangsterism will probably find enough material to vindicate their bias, but a more honest reading will show that the terrible things that have happened are largely the consequence of a war fought against a brutal and deeply entrenched insurgency in a country inured to violence. Indeed, one reason why "we learn nothing new" from the documents is that, unlike in Vietnam, senior military and civilian officials have been open about the failures, even when minimizing their scope. The war that emerges from the documents doesn’t look evil, but it does look almost impossible.

I recently had a conversation about counterinsurgency theory with Andrew Exum, the former Army officer turned counterinsurgency expert and advocate (whose own view of the documents is very different from mine). Exum pointed out to me that one of the leading texts on the subject, a 1964 tract by French officer David Galula called Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, argues that the ideal setting for a COIN effort is an island, where counterinsurgents can control the battle space like scientists in a laboratory. "The worst place," Exum said, "is a landlocked country surrounded by bad neighbors." Afghanistan, of course, is that place. No matter how successful you are, you can never control the battle space. An intelligence service on the other side of the border can keep undermining your best efforts, stoking and protecting the insurgency. The WikiLeaks documents offer raw proof for this general proposition.

So should we leave? Should we shift to a more modest counterterrorism strategy with fewer troops and lower expectations of nurturing a stable government in Kabul? Even before WikiLeaks, this was rapidly becoming the new default position; jumping off the COIN bandwagon has itself become the new bandwagon. Maybe it’s sheer contrariness that keeps me from accepting this view. I hope not; I think it’s rather the sense that allowing the Taliban to occupy and move freely around much of Afghanistan would have very bad consequences for U.S. national security. But American policymakers have less time than they had before to show success, and they have yet more public skepticism to overcome. Just as Obama must persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to open up political space, move against corruption, and decentralize power, so he must persuade Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s recently reappointed chief of army staff, to end the ISI’s double game. Maybe he can’t do either one. Then he should accept reality, and stop trying to do what can’t be done.


James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.