Talking Wikileaks in Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 7/27/2010 · 17 comments

I managed to get out two pieces yesterday about the Wikileaks leak, as promised. The first is at my homestation, of sorts, at PBS Need to Know (which is a great show, if you don’t watch it already!). There, I said the leak is both more and less important than people probably realize:

Can an organization whose sole purpose is exposing secret information really do a good job safeguarding the lives it endangers through exposure? They really cannot. The New York Times admitted as much, saying they took much greater pains not to provide readers the means to uncover the identities of anyone in the reports they mention (some of these efforts, like not linking to WikiLeaks, are almost cutesy on the Internet, but are nevertheless honest). “At the request of the White House,” the Times editors say, “[we] urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.” …

If I were a Taliban operative with access to a computer — and lots of them have access to computers — I’d start searching the WikiLeaks data for incident reports near my area of operation to see if I recognized anyone. And then I’d kill whomever I could identify. Those deaths would be directly attributable to WikiLeaks.

I also wrote about Wikileaks and the media’s response for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Assange’s justification for putting hundreds of lives at stake—“All of this material is more than seven months old, so it has no operational significance… there is no danger”—is as false as it is naïve. Many of the operations he details through these leaks are still ongoing, and many of the people involved in them are still there, hoping these leaks don’t make them into targets for assassination. Indeed, Adam Serwer, a staff writer for The American Prospect, tweeted this morning, “Former Military Intelligence Officer sez of wikileaks, ‘Its an AQ/Taliban execution team’s treasure trove.’”

In WikiLeaks’s world, though, that’s not their problem. They’re exposing secrets, consequences be damned. But there will be serious, and deadly, consequences from WikiLeaks’s War Diary archive. And odds are they won’t get nearly as much media attention as the initial leak.

Read the whole thing—both of them—and let me know what you think. I asked Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe what he thinks, and his take is pretty pessimistic:

I find this whole thing a bit troubling. Many of these 92,000 documents are the sort of thing that are shared with reporters on embeds. A few are sensitive but don’t tell us much new. My worry is that groups like WikiLeaks have the ability to manipulate us in the news media…

Indeed, he and I share the same concern. Julian Assange is a master of making the story about himself, and not what he leaked. In this case, when the leaked information is so surprisingly banal, it has the danger of making it further about Assange, and not about the war.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Alex Lobov July 27, 2010 at 11:17 am

Because other journalists would never exploit key pieces of information to build their names and their careers, nor would the news media ever manipulate information for publicity… right?

Come on Josh, this isn’t the real danger, the information is out there and that’s what we should be talking about, not whether it’s being brought by a reporter on embed or a by some sketchy paranoid narcissist.

Joshua Foust July 27, 2010 at 11:18 am

Normally, when reporters spin or distort stories to promote themselves, we condemn them as either sloppy or unethical, and discount whatever they reported. I don’t see why Assange deserves a different standard just because he has a big data archive.

Alex Lobov July 27, 2010 at 11:25 am

Because unlike reporters that “spin” stories, Assange is dumping the entire archive unspun, allowing the news media to spin it (which they have) and basically just being anti-war in interviews. Is that really such a big deal?

Pete July 27, 2010 at 5:32 pm

He gave the story to prominent anti-war newspapers to spin knowing where their emphasis would be, then gave interviews accusing the NATO forces of war crimes. That’s indirect spinning and out and out editorialising.
Giving it it the Guardian et al just gives him some room to put up his hands and say “what, me?” The release of “Collateral Murder” wasn’t exactly unvarnished data, and this is only a couple of steps away.

I think as Josh says in one of his pieces, as far as journalistic endeavours go, this information will just be filtered to support whatever narrative one has already adopted about the war. If it changes a single mind either way about anything, I’d be amazed.

Michael Drew July 30, 2010 at 6:31 am

I actually don’t have a problem with reporters promoting their stories, which will inevitably involve at least spinning their significance upward. Whenever a Times reporter appears on Charlie Rose, that’s what they’re doing. But usually when they get a spot of Rose, they at least have some modicum of a significant story, and it’s usually just a few outlets that they get spots on. The difference in the last two weeks has been the discrepancy between the level of unified, coordinated hype among major media (massive) and the objective importance of the stories (minimal, at least if the presence of newly reported information is not entirely discounted as necessary for a story to be deemed significant).

flow July 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm

“Those deaths would be directly attributable to WikiLeaks.” WTF??!! I always thought the US-American military is led by the president, not by WikiLeaks and Assange. Maybe I miss(ed) something?

Joshua Foust July 27, 2010 at 11:37 pm
Chris July 27, 2010 at 1:24 pm

@flow The leaked documents provide many names of people that have helped the United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan in ways both large and small. By not redacting the names of those folks, Assange has given the Taliban a list of people to execute or kidnap for the purposes of revenge or to intimidate people who might work with NATO forces in the future. Since he had plenty of opportunity to remove the names from the documents, Assange is morally responsible if the Taliban hunts them down. If the result is reduced cooperation from Afghans, then NATO (including American) forces may be more at risk, which is another strike against Assange. Since the leaks are in electronic format (SQL database, CSV file, etc…), this could have been done very easily. His claim that since all the documents are several months old and don’t endanger anyone is specious.

anan July 27, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Additional Wiki leak problems:
-reveals or provides clues to NDS and GIRoA sources inside Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan. No doubt GIRoA and NDS are irate about this, and might think twice before sharing intel with ISAF and the US.
-reveals or provides clues to sources of many of the coalition intelligence agencies which might cause them to share less intel with ISAF and the US.
-reveals a lot of back biting between different ANSF units, different US Army units, different Marine units, different ISAF troop contributors. Not good for morale.

A data dump of 85,000 documents by people who have no idea how easy it is to discern valuable intel between the lines and little capacity to determine what data is sensitive and what isn’t . . . on what planet is this a good thing?

Some ISAF soldiers and ANSF advisors are now looking up their own reports and what others wrote regarding specific incidents they were involved with. Talk about dirty laundry.

MM July 27, 2010 at 5:58 pm

The old media is not the story. Three dying newspapers filtering content to remain relevant or how a self important twit who wants to tell the world’s secrets, but not his own is not the story. Nor is confirmation of what Pakistan is doing with American money and support.

The real story is what will the US and NATO do about the war, and what do they tell the young men and women they send into the fight – or their parents when they do not come back from it. What value did their lives buy?

America still leads and still does the dirty thankless jobs and still tries to do the right thing. It still keeps the longest running experiment in free speech and free press and all the rest going in spite of all the invective and hate and scorn that is thrown at it.

The story is, if America will not try to stabilize a failing, dishonest, paranoid, and corrupt nuclear state like Pakistan, who will?

China has interest there, India has, Russia has, Iran has. In that part of the world, right on their doorstep, the saying is “No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.”

America should and must get out of this war as quickly as possible. 90,000 documents on Wikileaks say just that. Then what happens?

Self promoting jerks like Eric Strange who released the docs never have to clean up the hard things. They point out the problems, and take credit for that, and that has a value. He did a favor to all the people who have not been paying attention to put the reality right in their faces. But, egotists like him make no sacrifice or take no personal danger to themselves to try to make it right for everybody else. That is usually America’s job. We are weary of that.

Sorry about the long semi-rant comment.

SDProg July 27, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Yes, wikileaks should redact the names of the individuals involved in these incidents, but on the whole I believe these documents are beneficial because they will probably lead to a better informed general public. The Afghanistan War has been and still is FUBAR. IMO, these documents/logs only reinforce this interpretation. We are pursuing a strategy rife with contradictions that will ultimately fail. Karzai’s government is hopelessly corrupt and our other partner, Pakistan, does not share the same interests in the region. COIN illogically requires our service members to act simultaneously as soldiers and diplomats, which places a strain on the whole effort. Our service members seem to want looser rules of engagement, but if we were to comply with their wishes that would likely lead to more civilian casualties and thus a larger insurgency. Afghanistan is flooded with a variety of players each with their own distinct set of interests and who’s really winning anyway? I can’t say for sure, but it certainly is not us and it certainly is not the Afghan people.

We are doing all of this for what? A few hundred Al-Qaeda operatives at most? Al-Qaeda already has a safe haven in Pakistan and I doubt its leadership would choose to go back to Afghanistan any time in the foreseeable future. The reason I say this is because the Afghan Taliban would be extremely weary of bringing them back into the fold. Al-Qaeda is bent on domination of the entire middle east if not the world, while the Afghan Taliban is strictly concerned with Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban is all too aware of what could happen to them if they were to give Al-Qaeda a safe haven again.

anan July 27, 2010 at 10:06 pm

SDProg, you make many assumptions I don’t understand. There is no such thing as “Afghan Taliban” and “Pakistani Taliban” etc. There are more than 50 major Taliban militias, each with very different aims and objectives. Many Taliban have global caliphate ambitions [Siraj, TTP/TNSM, LeT, LeJ, IMU/IJU, some Chechen, some Uighur, OBL, Zawahiri.] Many have very local ambitions [sometimes they only care about one district in one province, not even other districts in their province.] There are many other permutations [maybe Siraj’s dad Gulbudin might be in this category.] There are even Taliban who would gladly fight for you if you rent them [Hekmatyur’s HIG.]

I have no idea what you mean by the term “Al Qaeda.” Do you mean all Arab Taliban? How about the many Arabs Taliban that serve as embedded combat advisors and officers in other Taliban groups. Even the Mullah Omar centric Quetta Shura Taliban makes extensive use of Arab Taliban as embedded combat advisors and trainers. [To be sure, I am not sure Mullah Omar is happy about this. But what can he do?]

TTP even two days ago publicly shared its plans to destroy India [no exaggeration, they weren’t talking about Kashmir, they were talking about all of India.] TTP has previously shared plans to destroy Russia, Iran, Shiites, Sufis, Europeans and North Americans. While right now TTP occupies itself mass murdering as many Pakistani civilians, Pakistani Army and Pakistani police as it can; they have very large global ambitions. TTP fights a lot in Khost, Paktia, Nuristan, Kunar. Recently TTP was involved in some large battles in Nangarhar [although I hope that was a temporary aberration.]

If TTP, TNSM, LeT, LeJ, Siraj, IMU/IJU, Iyas Kashmiri collectively decided to kill Mullah Omar, could he survive?

Personally, I think TTP represents a much larger security threat to the world than Osama Bin Laden. Am I wrong?

SDProg, you could make the case that ISAF isn’t even really fighting a serious war. ISAF didn’t begin to seriously increase ANSF capacity until November, 2009. [In 2009, only one thousand ANP were trained at any given time compared to 40 thousand Iraqi Police being trained at any given time. Iraq is much less populous and smaller than Afghanistan.] Even now the effort to train, equip, advise and fund the ANSF pales compared to the comparable effort to build Iraqi Security Forces 2006 to the present.

This is a major reason many Afghans don’t think ISAF is serious about this war or wants to defeat the Taliban.

SDProg July 28, 2010 at 2:07 am

Iraq is much less populous? No, it actually has a larger population and never mind Afghanistan’s status as one of the least developed countries in the world. Iraq’s existing infrastructure may have took a beating, but at least it was there. It seems to me that we have thrown plenty of money and resources towards training ANP and ANSF and have been met with less than stellar results:

“In fact, sometimes it seems as if exactly the same scathing report, detailing the same training problems and setbacks, has been recycled yearly without anyone who mattered finding it particularly odd — or being surprised that the response to each successive piece of bad news is to decide to pour yet more money and trainers into the project.

For example, in 2005, at a time when Washington had already spent $3.3 billion training and mentoring the Afghan army and police, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report indicating that “efforts to fully equip the increasing number of [Afghan] combat troops have fallen behind, and efforts to establish sustaining institutions, such as a logistics command, needed to support these troops have not kept pace.” Worse yet, the report fretted, it might take “up to $7.2 billion to complete [the training project] and about $600 million annually to sustain [it].”

In 2006, according to the New York Times, “a joint report by the Pentagon and the State Department… found that the American-trained police force in Afghanistan is largely incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work, and that managers of the $1.1 billion training program cannot say how many officers are actually on duty or where thousands of trucks and other equipment issued to police units have gone.” At best, stated the report, fewer than half of the officially announced number of police were “trained and equipped to carry out their police functions.”

In 2008, by which time $16.5 billion had been spent on Army and police training programs, the GAO chimed in again, indicating that only two of 105 army units were “assessed as being fully capable of conducting their primary mission,” while “no police unit is fully capable.” In 2009, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction reported that “only 24 of 559 Afghan police units are considered ready to operate without international help.” Such reports, as well as repeated (and repetitive) news investigations and stories on the subject, invariably are accompanied by a litany of complaints about corruption, indiscipline, illiteracy, drug taking, staggering desertion rates, Taliban infiltration, ghost soldiers, and a host of other problems. In 2009, however, the solution remained as expectable as the problems: “The report called for more U.S. trainers and more money.”

This June, a U.S. government audit, again from the Special Inspector General, contradicted the latest upbeat American and NATO training assessments, reporting that “the standards used to appraise the Afghan forces since 2005 were woefully inadequate, inflating their abilities.” The usual litany of training woes followed. Yet, according to Reuters, President Obama wants another $14.2 billion for the training project “for this year and next.” And just last week, the Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes reported that new Afghan war commander General David Petraeus is planning to “retool” U.S. strategy to include “a greater focus on how Afghanistan’s security forces are being trained.”

When it comes to U.S. training programs then, you might conclude that Afghanistan has proved to be Catch-22-ville, the land where time stood still — and so, evidently, has the Washington national security establishment’s collective brain. For Washington, there seems to be no learning curve in Afghanistan, not when it comes to “training” Afghans anyway.”


Sorry for the length, but I feel that it is worth reading especially since you brought up the issue.

anan July 28, 2010 at 3:02 am


Tom Engelhardt lied repeatedly throughout his piece. For the record, Tom’s piece isn’t worth reading or rebutting. Tom is an enemy of Afghanistan, the GIRoA and ANSF. It is precisely idiots like him that has caused the international caricature of the “Ugly American” and causes so much anti Americanism around the world.

Tom has his issues with Bush and Obama, but please don’t make up lies about Afghans and others, and insult the ANSF to play domestic politics. If Tom would repeat his lies in front of an ANA commando, he wouldn’t have teeth afterward.

SDProg, you seem decent enough. If you have any questions about the actual ANSF that exists in the “real world,” please feel free to ask away.

There are very long time lags between spending on security forces and security force capacity. If it takes $1 billion to develop “X” worth of security capacity 10 years from now, it costs perhaps $10 billion to develop “X” worth of security capacity 1 year from now.

The international community has been doing a series of disjointed plans based on developing immediate capacity while ignoring long term capacity.

SDProg, I would like to challenge a racist like Tom Engelhardt to explain why a graduate from NMAA [4 year National Military Academy of Afghanistan] doesn’t compare favorably with a four year graduate from West Point, Pakistan’s and India’s 4 year academies, South Korea’s 4 year academy, or any of the other professional 4 year academies.

Why has the international community denied funding and instructors to the NMAA? [Yes, Turkey, France, America, and India did a little, but not nearly as much as they could do. Every other country was missing in action.]

Why was the ANA only planning to train 1,950 NCOs per year as of November, 2009? Not for very long either. And not with many international NCOs to help the effort out. The only country to send a meaningful number of NCOs was Britain. Even America refused to send many NCOs to train Afghan NCOs.

SDProg we both know why the world didn’t help out. Because actually paying to train NCOs, or actually bothering to send their NCOs to Afghanistan might have cost some money. The world was way too cheap to do that.

“It seems to me that we have thrown plenty of money and resources towards training ANP and ANSF and have been met with less than stellar results”
To argue that America or the world made a serious effort to build ANSF capacity before November, 2009, is laughable.

“No, it actually has a larger population”
Afghanistan’s population is 33 million. Iraq’s is less than 30 million. Hard to tell for sure because many millions of Iraqi refugees who fled Saddam have now returned to Iraq. Many that fled in 2005 and 2006 have also returned. Iraq perhaps had 23 million people in 2003.

SDProg July 28, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Afghanistan has a population of 28,890,000, while Iraq has a population of 31,234,000 (2009 IMF estimates). Even if you’re right I would be hard-pressed to say Iraq is much less populous.

Also, can you cite your figures? What I see from you is a number of claims, but no sources to back them up. Also, care to point out where Tom Engelhardt lied? Unlike you he actually made an effort to back up his claims with sources. Corruption appears to be the primary reason the training of Afghan troops has gone so poorly: The desertion rate from September 2008-September 2009 was about 25%, so that also doesn’t help.

Can you also tell me how Afghanistan can even afford such a large military?:

Nobody July 27, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Don’t you think you’re getting all hot and bothered about nothing Joshua? There was very little in there that justified the secret classification, and the concern about source identification is grossly overstated.

I don’t understand how more information and more transparency is something to be feared, especially in the Afghan debate where everyone pretty much appears to have their heads up their asses, to be blunt.

Stop buying into this US military bullshit, making out that any piece of information not sanctioned by them, or not congruent with their perspectives is ipso facto suspect.

What I consider suspect, to be blunt, are self-promoting bloggers with remarkably little on the ground experience, advocating perspectives that promote and are rooted in a collective inside the beltway groupthink. God spare us, where are the decent journalists when you need them. Had it ever occurred to you that if the news organisations were actually doing their job, we’d have no need either for continued military spending in Afghanistan, or for Assange.

Nobody July 27, 2010 at 11:33 pm

Seriously, if some of the people feel so strongly about all of this, I challenge you to go to Afghanistan without military protection, head out to the villages, talk to the people, find out what is really going on, and report back the unvarnished truth. Because that is precisely NOT what we are getting. Instead we have a bunch of generals and Washington wankers telling us that it’s their way or the highway. Well, on the very few occasions that their stories have been checked out, on the ground, in Afghanistan, they have been proven to be out and out liars. Now, why do you suppose we’re in such a mess over there? Could it be because most people talking about Afg have either never been there, or if they have, have spent precious little time past a blast wall actually talking to and observing events from something other than the US military point of view? Under those circumstances, a document dump like this is invaluable, in part because it reveals precisely how screwed up the information flow on the ground has become.

All this tsk tsk on Assange. The guy has courage, he has integrity in that he’s doing what he thinks is right, and he has enough balls to stand up and put his name behind a bunch of information that could, in certain circumstanes, get him killed. Now, how many people on this thread can make that claim? How about you, Joshua? What price are you prepared to pay for telling the truth? Or are you just another of these big jerk off Washington wankers more concerned about their next TV appearance and/or book deal? And no, Need to Know is not a great program. It’s garbage, partly because of taking over Moyers’ slot. Get over yourself.

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