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What We Now Know: Wikileaks and the War in Afghanistan

What We Now Know: Wikileaks and the War in Afghanistan

The story of how Wikileaks became instrumental in the biggest leak in US military history reads like a political thriller, and the fallout is likely to continue for days as specialists pour over its details.

But as a first cut, how credible is the response by the US government?

In his first comments on the leak yesterday, President Barack Obama claimed that the documents revealed nothing that hadn’t ‘already informed our public debate on Afghanistan’.

Whilst this was a clear attempt to downplay the impact of the story, the point stands up to some scrutiny.

Informed public debate?

Task Force 373

One of the more sensational headlines has been the activities of Task-Force 373, the so-called ‘kill or capture’ squads that have been hunting insurgent leaders in Afghanistan.

Although the details have been sketchy, the knowledge that this group exists has been in the public domain for some time.  As early as January 2008, wired.com’s Danger Room, which has had its own bit part in the leak story, reported on Task Force ODIN in Iraq, a story originally published in Defense News.

This equally shadowy outfit was designed to ‘Observe Detect Interdict and Neutralise’ bomb makers in what was, at the time, an insurgent-ridden Iraq.

But the report goes on to say, ‘success has led Army officials to expand it and to bring its tactics to Afghanistan’.  Indeed, its success was touted by none other than General David Patraeus, who recently took over command in Afghanistan from General Stanley McChrystal.

The fact that such Special Forces activities have operated separate from ISAF command was a point alluded to in Stephen Grey’s Operation Snakebite.  Part of the McChrystal strategy corrected this.

IED Casualties

The true extent of IED casualties among troops and the population at large is shocking certainly, but not data which couldn’t otherwise be gathered by a committed researcher.

The pattern of increasing IED incidents which was revealed by the leak also reflects more recent security reports which have documented the Taliban’s increasing reliance on this tactic, as well as the increasing sophistication of their design.

A report by the New America Foundation in April of this year, also in the public domain, concluded exactly this.  In addition the report noticed a growing trend elsewhere in the region including Pakistan and the separatist region of Balochistan.

The Role of Pakistan and Iran

The suggestion that Pakistani and Iranian elements have links to insurgents operating will come as a surprise to no one.

Even the most casual observer of Afghan affairs will be aware that the regional picture is complicated by the role of proxies operating with the help of certain regional states.  In a recent London School of Economics report the ‘double game’ of the Pakistani ISI was suggested to have reached a level at which ISI agents were attending meetings of the Quetta Shura Taliban, one of the main insurgent groups making up what is collectively known as the ‘Taliban’.

More recently, ISAF openly reported the killing by US and Afghan Special Forces, of Mullah Akhtar, an insurgent with known links to Iran. It was reported by ISAF that Akhtar ‘was responsible for arranging training for foreign fighters from Iran and helped resolve disputes between militant networks’.  On top of this, Gen McChrystal announced as recently as May this year that Afghan insurgents were training inside Iran.

Whilst such revelations can and have caused diplomatic embarrassment, they are generally denied.  However, the fact that states engage in such proxy warfare is hardly new, and is not likely to change.

The Killing of Civilians

The killing of innocent civilians by coalition forces is potentially the more damaging aspect of these leaks and will certainly do damage to the image of the ISAF operation as a whole.

We now have a better picture of the true extent of these incidents between 2004-09, but should we be surprised that such incidents have occurred?

President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly pleaded with NATO to reduce its reliance on airpower and change its standard operating procedures to guard against such events occurring – a message that finally got through with McChrystal’s new ‘population-centric strategy’ which took hold late last year.

The troubling aspect is the apparent covering-up of such incidents.  Yet again however, this is hardly surprising.  NATO is acutely aware of the damage that such incidents do to progress on the ground.  This point was illustrated more forcefully in a recent report which found that found a reduction in the use of force by NATO troops showed a significant correlation with a reduction in attacks on those troops.

The interpretation?  Less use of force on civilians = fewer insurgents.

A simple counter-insurgency argument that remains fiendishly difficult to achieve.

The Taliban Possessing Anti-Aircraft Weaponry

Finally, the revelation that the Taliban may have acquired an anti-aircraft capacity far earlier than we thought is alarming, but so far instances of aircraft being shot down in Afghanistan remains remarkably low.

In fact, one of the many questions that this leak raises, includes why haven’t more surface to air attacks taken place?  For all the external support the Taliban allegedly receives, we might equally ask, why won’t their supporters give them the weapon which helped defeat the Soviets only two decades ago?

Winners and Losers

As David Loyn of the BBC suggested in the immediate aftermath of the Wikileaks publication, the documents will be of most benefit to historians, who may now go ahead and write their books (should they be lucky enough to be publishing on the period 2004-09).

Aside from this, it is difficult to see who, if anyone, benefits from their publication.

The US and its allies must now contend with a more clued up public.  Much of the ‘public debate’ that Obama referred to has been lacking strong empirical evidence.  These leaks have provided flesh to the bones of the narratives supporting these debates.  Whilst the retort is that many of the problems these leaks highlight have been addressed, the contradictions inherent in the previous strategy are painfully laid bare by having all the data in one place, and the key question is now ‘is it all too little too late?’

Other losers include regional actors such as Iran and Pakistan who are once more fingered as spoilers in a war which continues to provoke instability within their own borders.   Finally, the Taliban must acknowledge that their methods and modes of operation are being closely watched, if not adequately countered.

As a footnote, their own targeting of civilians, which has if anything increased since NATO reduced its reliance on firepower, now looks even less flattering to its public relations image as a national liberation force.

T.E. Lawrence, or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as he is more popularly known, was a master of the irregular form of warfare we see in Afghanistan today.  In his opinion, waging war on rebellion was ‘messy and slow’.  There is little here which do anything to dispel this reality.  These documents paint a picture that Lawrence would surely recognize.  As General Sir David Richards more recently commented on Afghanistan, this is ‘persistent, low-level, dirty fighting’.

Those who expected a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ to take us away from this most troubling form of conflict will be disappointed.

Those who know their history will not be surprised.

About Martin Bayly

Martin Bayly
Martin Bayly is a PhD student in the War Studies Department at King's College London. His research interests concern conflict analysis, counter-insurgency, and the war in Afghanistan.

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