Wikileaks: Friend or Foe in Afghanistan?
This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy’s Afpak Channel, titled “Getting A Grip on WikiLeaks“
By now, most readers are aware of what The Guardian calls “a huge cache of secret U.S. military files” that was leaked online by WikiLeaks on Sunday. There are more than 90,000 records and it will take journalists, pundits, and researchers a very long time to pore over all of them, but The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel, which received the leaked records several weeks ahead of time, carried out the initial analysis.
You can find the dedicated pages set up by the newspapers by clicking the links above, or if you have a lot of free time on your hands, browse the entire set so far released on the WikiLeaks website. For those with less time, Gregg Carlstrom has a solid selection of the key points to have been reported thus far up at Al Jazeera English.
Many of the responses from commentators, particularly from experts on the conflict, have been unimpressed. CNAS fellow Andrew Exum called the records “merely additional examples of what we already knew” in the New York Times, and was even more dismissive in his initial responseon his blog. Afghanistan analyst Joshua Foust called the bulk of the newspaper reports from the three above “low-hanging fruit” and wrote at length about the possible danger this leak has created for sources that were carelessly not redacted by WikiLeaks. Steve Schippert of Threats Watch finds this “latest episode amusing at best and reckless at minimum.” And so on.
Much of the discourse in the wake of this leak has also been about Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Some have asserted that Assange is “a master of making it about himself,” that he has “a flair for public relations” and that he’s more of an “activist” than a journalist. These assertions are another failure of perspective. The media landscape is full of journalists with opinions and entire publications that blur the line between activism and journalism. This is not new. It also is not at all uncommon for journalists to use stories to bolster their careers and publications routinely build readership by getting “scoops” published. Journalism is a competitive industry and being good at public relations shouldn’t be viewed as something insidious.
Firstly, I agree that the failure by WikiLeaks to make more effort at redactions to protect individuals from reprisals is contemptible. I also agree that those that have been watching Afghanistan closely, even over just the past few years, may not find it at all surprising that Pakisan’s ISI is heavily involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan, or that there are many instances of seemingly recklessfriendly fire incidents and IEDs causing civilian casualties. Many may not even by surprised by reported Iranian involvement in maintaining the Afghan insurgency or rumors of Osama bin Laden’s death. These things have been talked about for a while now and, some (like the ISI business) more credible than others (like OBL’s death), but WikiLeaks has not, thus far, been able to present hard evidence of any of them, leaving many of us exactly where we started off before the leak.
What I disagree with is the lack of perspective shown by so many writers and analysts in their failure to see the forest for the trees. Assange may be sketchy and WikiLeaks may be anti-war but the narrative constructed from this raw data is being funnelled through three respectable publications that have long reported on the war. The reason why the “War Logs,” as they are called by the Guardian, are important is not that they provide groundbreaking new information or even explosive evidence to back up old information. They are important because of the sheer scale of documentation and because of the overall picture they paint of the war, considering that this is a war that is steadily approaching the nine year mark and has cost taxpayers in the U.S. alone almost $200b. And the public, particularly in coalition countries and the many countries in the region that this war has a direct impact on, still needs to think about this war.
Of the government statements in response to this leak, my favorite so far has been Senator John Kerry’s initial take:
However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.
So yes, there is little that’s new (so far) in these “War Logs” and, yes, we know little about Julian Assange and his motivations and, sure, if you don’t trust the man and are an expert on the conflict, then feel free to disregard this story completely. Whether you believe that this war should end or not, it’s safe to say that it isn’t going very well and, at the very least, we should welcome an opportunity for the public to reassess and rethink whether, to them, this is a war that is still worth it. For that purpose, then, the “War Logs” can’t do any harm.