A Wikileaks Interview

by Joshua Foust on 8/1/2010 · 30 comments

I know this is kinda tedious at this point, but this past Friday PBS flew me up to New York to tape an interview with Need to Know‘s co-host John Meachem, who also edits Newsweek. I write a security column for Need to Know, and it was great to meet some of their production team. It was an amazing experience, and I hope I get to do it again!

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– 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 Registan.net. 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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Joe Harlan August 1, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Interesting how he’s trying to lead you into saying that the Wikileaks dump was a good thing because exposing classified information challenges the government’s position…when really — and especially in this case — it doesn’t. I’m surprised at how even educated observers (e.g., Meachem) have their views colored by Vietnam.

Joshua Foust August 1, 2010 at 9:39 pm

I’m in the awkward position of being in favor of whistleblowing—that is, exposing crimes—but deeply opposing Wikileaks’ indiscriminate posting of classified material on the internet. As one non-death example, in their zeal to publish this data archive might have undermined a war crimes trial in Poland:

A Polish investigation linked seven members of the Polish military with the attacks. A trial to determine their guilt began in February 2009 and is ongoing. The defendants face prison sentences of between 12 years and life for the killing of civilians and/or firing on an unarmed target.

It is unclear whether the Wikileaks documents will have any affect on the court proceedings.

Last I heard, they were all about stopping war crimes. Oh well. And in the same report Wikileaks and Julian Assange leaked the name and rank of the Polish counter-intelligence officer involved in the investigation of the Nangar Khel killings. That’s 4-8 years of jailtime in Poland, to say nothing of putting that officer’s life in jeopardy now.

Way to go Wikileaks!

OG August 1, 2010 at 11:15 pm

You capture my thoughts exactly, Joshua.

What certain people don’t understand is that there’s far more gradience to this issue than 1 or 0, black or white.

Michael Hancock August 1, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Excellent interview!

SDProg August 2, 2010 at 12:56 am

Pretty much everyone agrees Wikileaks should have been more careful redacting the names (This includes Greenwald who you counted “as one of the “the blind ideologues desperate to cover the fact that they NEVER cared about Afghans.”). If they had would you still be as critical of Wikileaks? These reports further reinforce what many who have paid attention already know, which is that the Afghanistan War is FUBAR and is endangering far more American and Afghan lives than Wikileaks probably ever could. For those who have not paid attention then thse leaks may very well be revelatory. If, indeed, a covert agent, local informant, or anyone else is killed because of these leaks then Wikileaks should publicly apologize, reevaluate its redaction policies, and be held accountable in some form.

Wikileaks obviously has room for improvement, but it has the potential to be a useful tool for whistleblowers looking to expose corruption or criminal activity within the government, corporations, charities, and any other organization for many years to come. What the leak also reveals to me is the extent to which the government overclassifies. Looking over many of these reports it appears to me that many of them could have been released after they underwent some minor alterations such as the redacting of names without putting a single life in danger.

Joshua Foust August 2, 2010 at 7:38 am

I agree it has the potential to be useful. But two things really bother me about Wikileaks:

1) their selective morality; and

2) their exclusive targeting of generally pro-transparency Western governments.

In this case, I was a fan of Wikileaks before the Afghan document dump. No one is really put into danger from the release of the 2007 Apache video in Iraq, for example, it just confirms what Reuters had already publicly said. That was a failure on the part of the Army to release video in response to a very reasonable request. I’m still scratching my head to see how this latest release of documents serves the public interest. It gives anti-war people more reasons to shriek about whatever they’re shrieking about this month, but beyond that I just don’t see how it’s worth the damage and risk.

I agree with you than many of them easily could have been scrubbed and released with very little change to the type of information they portray. But that, again, is why I find the release so troubling. Wikileaks doesn’t seem to have much more than a token concern for what happens to the people it victimizes through leaking.

passerby August 2, 2010 at 12:24 pm

N° 2) is totally false. Actually, at the beginning, the stated goal of WikiLeaks was such: “Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. ”
Indeed, although it just didn’t get much coverage in the NYT, some of their most interesting leaks were about Kenya, Somalia, or Peru, alongside real whistleblowing concerning illegal actions by Western companies – banks, etc.
Assange seems to be a weird guy, not totally grow up, and probably not completely mentally sane. But at least, he’s been really consistent in what he does, and even though he definitely appears to be a generally anti-government pacifist “citizen of the world” type, he definitely does not target Western governments more than the rest.
It’s just that leaking Western government material attracts more attention – and more funds. And, very probably, that citizens from Western democracies are more likely to engage in this type of whistleblowing as well as to have the necessary know-how.

Tim McGreen August 2, 2010 at 7:34 am

Really, Mr. Foust, you make it too obvious that you’re a paid propaganda mouthpiece for the Zionist Occupied Government in Washington. Which alphabet soup agency pays you to go on talk-shows and villify anyone who dares critize ZOG’s imperialist war of aggression in Afghanistan? Is it the NSA, DoD or CIA? I think your handlers should assign you to CBS News’ “Up to the Minute” show next. They always enjoy having pro-war disinformation specialists like you on as guests.

Joshua Foust August 2, 2010 at 7:40 am

You know Tim, if I had handlers, that would be awesome. Would save me the trouble of thinking too much. Have you read the rest of this blog? I think you’d enjoy it.

Michael Hancock August 2, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Sweet! Am I a Zionist pig-dog, too? Or just a lackey? Either way, what benefits should I be enjoying? Are they tax deductible?

Michael Hancock August 2, 2010 at 1:34 pm

In all seriousness, Mr McGreen, you’ll want to spend some time outside the company of those that agree with you from time to time. At a University there are lots of opportunities for that. The point I’d like to make is that it’s a very useful skill to learn that people who believe the exact opposite things as you are not actually part of some evil empire conspiracy. There are people that think everything you do is wrong, and then after work they, like you, go to the movies, get a beer, sleep with their husband/wife, you know. They’re just people that see things differently.

It’s similar to McCarthy’s opinion that “Anti-American” values equaled “Communism” equaled “Must be in cohoots with Russia,” because there’s no way my neighbors can come to different conclusions about the righteousness of X,Y, and Z.

And yet we do, sir.

reader August 3, 2010 at 1:27 pm


It depends on what you and your neighbor/coworker are disagreeing on, wouldn’t you say? What’s scary is that normal people can do horrific things, or at least countenance them. It would be nice if all the evil in the world was done by demons in human form, but it doesn’t quite work that way. And there are different levels of disagreement, wouldn’t you say? We aren’t arguing paisley vs. stripes.

I’m not advocating violence, mind you, against those you disagree with; rather, do what the Amish do, decide if the person you disagree with is behaving in an immoral fashion and then shun him or her. That’s about the most mature way of dealing with it.

KZBlog August 3, 2010 at 1:52 am

Also Western countries are more likely to have whistle blowers, and the capacity to verify leaked documents. I certainly know people here in KZ who have said they have seen documents that would expose incompetence in the gov’t but they would never publish them because 1) they don’t want to embarrass their gov’t internationally, 2) the penalties would be severe if they got caught, 3) no one could verify them. You can’t just call the Minister and ask if a document is real or not 4) most likely the govt would not react or change anything anyway.

Jon Williams August 3, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Joshua, in your “Need to Know” interview you said the following about Julian Assange’s assertion that so many non-combatant fatalities at the hands of U.S. forces amount to war crimes…

JOSHUA FOUST: I’m not sure that actually rises to the level of war crime, ’cause, I mean, one of the reasons why war is a terrible thing is because innocent people get killed. It happens all the time.

I would love for you to elucidate further on that statement, i.e. tell us more about what percentage of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been civilian compared, say, to the percentage in prior wars. I can’t find the info now but I know I’ve seen/heard numbers showing that war has, over recent years, become more and more lethal to civilian populations as we move the fighting from battlefield to urban centers. Especially now, as we fight insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the side of the “governments” rather than against them, it seems we should be inflicting a smaller percentage of civilian casualties rather than larger, as “the people” of these countries are not nominally waging war against us and therefore should be more protected than ever. The fact that we seem to be killing a greater percentage of civilians than in past wars would indicate to me that “war crimes” are happening. It may not be a Lt. Calley going off the deep end, but high government officials instituting policies that result in “excessive” civilian casualties can’t be overlooked for prosecution. IMHO.

Joshua Foust August 3, 2010 at 1:19 pm


The U.S. has committed what we would now consider war crimes in previous wars, and we have only recently acknowledged them as such. Two jump immediately to mind: the firebombing of Dresden, and the firebombing of Tokyo. Both were massive bombing campaigns meant to “disspirit” the civilian populations of Germany and Japan, and combined represented hundreds of thousands of dead in the matter of a few weeks.

Then there were the atomic bombs.

All told in WWII, for example, nearly 4 million German civilians died at the hands of the Allies (this does not include holocaust victims).

The point is, in Afghanistan, the numbers of civilian casualties, while appalling, is small: at its peak, less than 3,000 Afghan civilians died per year from the fighting. This compares to Iraq in 2006 or so, when nearly 2,000 civilians were dying per month.

I don’t have precise estimates on me right now, but I hope those can give some context to what I meant when I said the mere presence of civilian casualties does not constitute a war crime (which has a pretty specific definition).

reader August 3, 2010 at 1:42 pm


Which wars were less lethal to civilian populations? Are the numbers you mention involve wars in which Western forces were directly involved (Vietnam, Afghanistan), South American drug wars, African conflicts, and the Balkan wars? Also, how far back are you talking? Maybe on some macro or technological level it makes sense to compare all these conflicts, but I can’t really understand comparing a war like Afghanistan with Rwanda or Yugoslavia.

Jon Williams August 3, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Joshua and Reader,

I’m anything but an expert on military history, just a fellow who thinks a single civilian death is one death too many and wouldn’t have to happen if we relied on better, more civilized ways of resolving differences of opinion. Certainly the people of Iraq had not done a single thing that warranted what we did to that country’s civilian population. Sure we “saved them” from Hussein, but did we inquire as to whether or not they wanted to be saved? And if so, at what cost in lives, property, wealth, etc.? The havoc we wreaked ought to be considered a crime, whether it is or not. You’re undoubtedly right, Joshua, anyone who’s going to be prosecuted, if anyone is at all, would have to have done something on “the list.” And Afghanistan? Those people are even less responsible than the Iraqis for the anti-Western actions of an intolerable “government” that came into power thanks to our clandestine actions against the Soviets. We’ve been there nine years, and as very recent news stories are showing, the more people we kill there – insurgents and innocents alike – the larger the insurgency grows, by a factor of six to one, we read today in the L.A. Times. We’re a self-fulfilling prophecy and it’s costing Americans money, respect and the lives of their loved ones. Who should be taken to task for bringing all this about? An honest mistake…that goes on and on and on? Shouldn’t we redefine “war crimes” so that those involved in starting wars when diplomacy has not even been seriously considered are forced to think at least twice? If war is a “terrible thing,” shouldn’t we do all that we can to prevent people and nations from practicing it? I don’t think we’re trying very hard to do that, especially when war is in our own “national interests.”

Joshua Foust August 3, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Jon, I don’t think you’re saying anything terribly controversial or even inarguable there. But nothing you mentioned rises to the level of a war crime, which is why I said the bit you highlighted about civilian casualties. Accidental death cannot be considered a “war crime,” unless all death is a war crime. That defines down the definition of what it means, like calling every massacre a genocide. There are degrees of evil in war, just as there are degrees of anything else.

Jon Williams August 3, 2010 at 4:04 pm

But Joshua, any number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq have been far from “accidental,” and I’m not referring simply to soldiers shooting noncombatants in cold blood. When drone strikes are called in against family compounds because intelligence has determined that key leaders of the insurgency are inside, the resulting noncombatant deaths are anything but accidental. Incidental seems to be a better term. At what point does authorizing the death of innocents, including women and children, become a war crime? I remember reading that Rumsfeld had to personally okay any air strike that was likely to result in 30 or more noncombatant casualties and he green lit over 150 at during shock and awe alone. War criminal? In my book, yes, of course.

Fnord August 4, 2010 at 7:42 am

Jon, maybe im a cynical boy after years of following blogs like this, but what struck me from the Wikileaks papers were how *few* civilian deaths as a result of panic/bad will there was. You had the marines slaughter run and a few other instances but really if you look historically at it, this must be one of the most bloodless occupations ever for the civilians. Iraq was a whole other matter on a magnitude of nearly a hundred.

As to the wikileaks-debate, what strikes me most is that Assange & friends apears to have edited selectively. It seems they have graded wich info they would release, sparing the US forces and not caring about the Afghans. I also think the views that these folks are collaborators with an occupation regime is somewhat false, the situation right now is one of civil war more than just a occupation. And then the parameters change.

anan August 4, 2010 at 10:59 am

Fnord, Afghanistan has hardly been bloodless. In 2008 ANSF casualties were something like 15 times US casualties. In 2009, the Taliban killed something like 2000 ANP alone.

The difference in Afghanistan was that the Taliban primarily hit at the ANP, ANA, and after 2008, ISAF, rather than civilians.

steve August 3, 2010 at 5:49 pm


At what point does authorizing the death of civilians become a war crime? That question is taken into account with every drone strike or cruise missile launch, etc. There is a calculus the military uses in deciding how many possible civilian deaths are acceptable — harsh, I know — in taking out a military target, e.g., a high-ranking insurgent leader. I don’t think there’s a cheat sheet that says X number of innocent civilian deaths are acceptable for Y target, but it really does come down to that. This (im)moral calculus is built into the targeting process, and vetted by military lawyers so as to avoid any legitimate charges of war crimes as defined by international conventions, e.g., the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The difference between “collateral damage” and war crimes is that the military cannot deliberately target civilians, but it’s not automatically illegal to kill noncombatants, whether they’re babies or women or old men.

Jon Williams August 3, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Then I guess you could take out all of Kandahar, knowing you were getting a great number of active insurgents and just call the civilian deaths collateral damage. You’d be “targeting” combatants, after all, not the baby in the cradle in the next room. War, in general, is (should be?) criminal if alternatives have not been exhausted, especially when those who suffer the most have done absolutely nothing to bring it on themselves. You and I could have figured out a better solution to the problems with either Iraq or Afghanistan. The U.S. government wanted war, plain and simple, and still seems to.

reader August 3, 2010 at 7:25 pm


About the only possible, and stress possible, war crime might be the use of depleted uranium. I’m not an expert, but I’ve read that if a war can be decided upon by an international court as a war of aggression then any subsequent acts are the responsibility of the aggressor; kind of a Pandora’s box law. Realistically speaking, I highly doubt that the war in Iraq will ever be defined/tried as a war of aggression by anyone who counts, geopolitically speaking. Regarding the Afghan invasion, it was stupid and based on a desire for revenge, and made possible by the US’ owning NATO (brunette Danish Ken Doll aside). But since the Taliban were hosting/hiding Al Qaida most people wouldn’t consider it a war of aggression. Immoral depending on your pov, but not a war crime.

anan August 4, 2010 at 12:14 am

reader, the Taliban and AQ had been complicit in many terrorist attacks against Shiites, Sufis, Iranians, Stan nations, Russia, India, China and Afghanistan. Not to mention the embassy attacks in 1998 against Kenya, Tanzania and America or the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

Many nations had been providing realms and realms of evidence to the Taliban about this for years to no avail. The Taliban was doing all of this intentionally.

Every country on earth except for three [Pakistan, KSA, UAE] treated the Northern Alliance as the sole legitimate government of Afghanistan. This Afghan government requested and received international help to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban. The vast majority of Afghans hated the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2001. When the Afghan resistance [mostly the Northern Alliance but also other groups] liberated most of Afghanistan they were greeted as liberators. Even in Jalalabad. The exception was in the South.

On September 12th, 2001, there was a joint meeting between Iran, India, China, Russia, Northern Alliance, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan where all of them publicly pledged to jointly help the Northern Alliance unseat the Taliban. In my view NATO correctly joined this international coalition.

Keep in mind that the UNSC has passed multiple unanimous resolutions regarding Afghanistan. The fifty some country ISAF coalition is as UN sanctioned as they get. Reader, can you think of a war more internationally legitimate and legal than this one?

This said, the GIRoA, ANSF, ISAF, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India, China, 5 Stan nations, and other stake holders have made many mistakes. The largest of these in my opinion was refusing to resource, train, equip, and advise the ANSF in a meaningful way before November, 2009.

One of the best ways to nation build Afghanistan is to train ANSF officers with 4 years bachelor school or at least 2 year AB degrees; and educating ANSF NCOs to 12th grade literacy. This has not been done because the international community was and remains far too cheap.

Reader, remember that even now more than 85% of Afghans oppose the Taliban, more than 80% strongly oppose the Taliban. The ANA remains very popular with Pasthun Afghans. The ANA is 42% Pashtun and has a waiting list to join. It is very difficult to get one of the limited slots in the NMAA [National Military Academy of Afghanistan.] Even today most Pashtuns want the ANA to defeat the Taliban.

Why do you consider international training, advising, equipping, funding of the ANSF immoral?

reader August 4, 2010 at 9:45 am


I don’t consider the last part you mentioned immoral. Please don’t try to change the subject.

I was stating that some people considered the invasion of Afghanistan immoral. In many ways the invasion was more about taking revenge for 9/11 and less about seeing criminals brought to justice. There were plenty of Americans, post 9/11, who could care less about all the things you mentioned, they only wanted to see lots of Muslims dead for an attack on a city (NY; Americans love to hate NY “elitists”) that any other time they would describe as a Sodom and Gommorah. And there are plenty of politicians who are more than willing to have thousands killed abroad so they can appear tough enough for their constituents. On a higher political level, this war is also about keeping NATO relevant, which if you are going to wage war to justify a bureaucracy’s existence, that’s kind of evil. But the US is an old hand at this (war on drugs, war on poverty).

But that’s all historical trivia at this point, and I’m not talking about people like Foust et al (including many people in ISAF), who are trying to bring some good out of a bad situation. I might sound critical of ISAF, but I don’t believe them monsters. Add to that, I think, the minority of Americans who want to actually help the Afghans (contra the larger group that spout off political talking points like Afghan girls, etc. but could honestly care less) Or your liberal Afghan types. I think you guys are fighting a good fight in the midst of a pretty dark world.

Finally, anan, the international coalition wouldn’t count for squat without NATO, and specifically the US.

anan August 4, 2010 at 10:22 am

‘Finally, anan, the international coalition wouldn’t count for squat without NATO, and specifically the US.’

There are 50 non US troop contributors with about 50 K non US troops. This is one of the largest UN authorized missions ever. There have been many non NATO contributions. More than a dozen muslim majority countries have contributed.

“On a higher political level, this war is also about keeping NATO relevant, which if you are going to wage war to justify a bureaucracy’s existence, that’s kind of evil.” Doubt that. NATO responded to an attack on a fellow NATO nation from extremists who wanted to attack all of NATO.

Reader the policy of ISAF that McChrystal forced on his subordinates is “partnered embedding.” This means that ISAF embed inside the ANSF and fight through them. 201st and 203rd ANA Corps have combined HQs with cjtf101 that command all ANA and ISAF in their AOs. Deputy Commanding General BGs serving as deputy commanders of these combined joint headquarters. The policy is to jointly plan and execute all operations with the ANSF and ISAF.

How many independent operations does ISAF conduct in Afghanistan [that are not joint operations with the ANSF that are jointly considered, planned and executed with the ANSF]?

The real McChrystal strategy was to surge the ANSF and improve their capacity through embedded partnering.

reader August 4, 2010 at 11:06 am

Numbers of men on the ground, please.

If the US left right now, just like the Dutch, everyone else would stay and the project would go on as planned? Because all the partners are equally important in the coalition? Please, anan.

And the debate about NATO’s ongoing relevance is not a great secret or driven entirely by its opponents. Both Afghanistan and the Balkan interventions have been cited as justifications for NATO’s continued existence. Also the suggestions by some American hawks to expand NATO to the Ukraine and Georgia also strike me, at least, as people floundering around trying to justify NATO’s existence.

And regarding attacks on a NATO member, why aren’t there German and British soldiers going after the PKK? Because the US basically runs NATO, and hasn’t strong-armed its allies into going after the PKK.

anan August 4, 2010 at 1:58 pm

reader, might summarize some of the ISAF contributing nation contributions later. Among the muslim countries, Turkey, Jordan and UAE make the most significant contributions.

The way to think about NATO is a mechanism for many countries to collaboratively deal with global commons. It doesn’t matter who provides global commons, everyone benefits. This causes a free rider problem that NATO is aimed at addressing.

The US and NATO do significantly help Turkey fight PKK through intelligence and diplomacy. So does Israel. However, Turkey is more than willing and capable of handling the kinetics on their own.

This is the NATO/ISAF objective in Afghanistan as well. As ISAF repeated today, increasing ANSF capacity is the primary strategic effort of ISAF in Afghanistan. It is the responsibility of the GIRoA and ANSF to defeat Al Qaeda and Taliban linked networks.

reader August 3, 2010 at 7:26 pm

first sentence- use of depleted uranium in Iraq.

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