In one of the biggest leaks in U.S. military history, WikiLeaks yesterday released 92,000 classified documents about the Afghanistan war. The military intelligence and incident reports cover a six-year period from 2004 to the end of 2009.
News of the "War Logs," as the material is being dubbed, was reported Sunday by The New York Times, the British newspaper the Guardian, and Germany's Der Spiegel, which had been given exclusive access to the files by WikiLeaks.
According to the Times, the documents "illustrate why, after the United States has spent almost $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001." The files show, the Times says, that the reality of the war is in many respects "more grim than the official portrayal."
The Times and Guardian reports focus on the following conclusions from the documents:
* Pakistan's intelligence service and military have been deeply involved in helping, even "guiding," the Taliban, even as the U.S. proclaimed Pakistan its key ally in the war and gave it billions in military aid. The Guardian reports the documents show Iranian involvement as well.
* U.S. and NATO forces have killed hundreds of civilians in incidents that have not been reported.
* The U.S. covered up evidence that the Taliban are using surface-to-air missiles to shoot down helicopters and planes. Of course, these powerful weapons were first provided to Afghan "mujahadeen" by the U.S. in its war against the Soviet Union and Afghanistan's socialist government.
* The Taliban have caused growing carnage with a massive escalation of roadside bombings, which have killed more than 2,000 civilians to date.
* A secret special forces unit has hunted down Taliban leaders for "kill or capture" without trial. Some operations have gone awry, killing civilians. In addition, the U.S. is increasingly using drone aircraft to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada, but their performance is uneven.
The White House e-mailed a statement to reporters Sunday evening pointing out "on background" that, "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."
An official statement by National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones said the "shift in strategy" announced by President Obama last December was aimed at addressing "challenges in Afghanistan that were the subject of an exhaustive policy review last fall."
In a Monday press conference in London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said the documents "will shape an understanding of what the past six years of war has been like," and make clear that "that course of the war needs to change."
Assange, an Australian former computer programmer and hacker, said he has been asked numerous times "what is the most single damning revelation" in the files. "That is not the real story of this material," he said. "The real story of this is that it's war, it's one damn thing after another." Citing the "continued small events," the continued deaths of children, insurgents, allied forces, the maimed people, the amputees, he said most of these deaths are just part of the "everyday squalor of war."
He said he expected that the release of these leaked files would encourage others to "step forward."
In April this year WikiLeaks drew international attention when it published a classified U.S. military video showing two Apache helicopter gunships carry out the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in a Baghdad suburb, including two Reuters news staff. A 22-year-old intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, was arrested and charged with leaking the video.
Many of the revelations reported so far from the "War Logs" documents are not really new, but rather confirm or give detail on points that have already been widely reported: the role of Pakistan, the civilian deaths, the special operations, the Taliban successes and U.S. failures. They provide a few "interesting details," Mother Jones commentator Kevin Drum observed. "Overall, however, the basic picture is basically the one we've known for a long time: a difficult, chaotic battlefield that's shown little progress since the very beginning of the war."
But by laying out in compelling detail a mountain of official confirmation of how badly the war is going, the leaks are creating a firestorm, at least on Capitol Hill, where Congress is now taking up supplemental funding for the Afghanistan war.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement saying the Obama administration's Afghanistan 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."
Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold said the leaks "underscore what we already knew - the policies we have been pursuing in the region under both the Bush and Obama administrations are based on a deeply flawed strategy." Feingold said the leaks make it clear there is no military solution and he called for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Photo: Abdul Ghafaar comforts his 7-year-old nephew at a hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, July 24. Ghafaar said he brought seven children to the city's hospital after getting caught in crossfire between NATO and Taliban forces in Sangin, a flash-point town in neighboring Helmand province. The NATO-led command said it was aware of reports of civilian casualties in Sangin but said in a statement that it had "no operational reporting that correlates to this alleged incident." (AP/Allauddin Khan)