Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has compared his organization’s latest leak of almost 92,000 U.S. military documents relating to the war in Afghanistan to “opening the Stasi archives” in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He also compared the leak to Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers.
Both claims are a bit difficult to swallow. The Stasi were famous for creating a total surveillance state and gathering comprehensive evidence of political “crimes” against their own citizenry; the Pentagon Papers revealed Kennedy’s involvement in the overthrow of Diem, and Nixon’s decision to illegally bomb Cambodia and Laos. The WikiLeaks archive is… daily incident reports. Incident reports can be revealing, if they say something new. But these don’t.
The leak is certainly news—though not surprised by their content, even Afghan president Hamid Karzai was shocked by their sheer scope. The White House is worried about how this might harm national security. And if nothing else, these documents confirm our worst fears about the war—namely, that it is slowly being lost.
Yet when you look at the Small Wars Journal’s archive of stories about “The Afghan War Logs,” as WikiLeaks has taken to calling them, what is remarkable is what’s new: not very much. Did we know the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, was supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan? We seemed comfortable enough with that relationship in 2002, when the U.S. allowed Pakistan to fly thousands of Pakistani operatives, Taliban militants, and even al Qaeda agents out of the northern city of Kunduz over a three month period at the end of 2001—a movement of people so massive, and so inexplicably brazen, it’s been called “The Airlift of Evil.” Lest we be tempted to assume that Pakistan stopped supporting the Taliban at some point, as recently as 2008 U.S. officials were complaining of the ISI’s direct support to terrorist groups inside Afghanistan, like when Afghan insurgents detonated a massive car bomb at the Indian embassy in Kabul, killing fifty.
Assange has argued that these files “prove” the Pakistani government’s direct complicity in attacks in Afghanistan. The Guardian retorts:
But for all their eye-popping details, the intelligence files, which are mostly collated by junior officers relying on informants and Afghan officials, fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity. Most of the reports are vague, filled with incongruent detail, or crudely fabricated. The same characters – famous Taliban commanders, well-known ISI officials – and scenarios repeatedly pop up. And few of the events predicted in the reports subsequently occurred.
It’s too easy to blanketly condemn Pakistan for its relationship to the Taliban, which goes back to 1994 and has spanned four presidents. Pakistan has also lost nearly 2,000 soldiers trying to remove the Taliban from its restive Northwest (an area where rumor is fact more often than not). And for several years, the U.S. hasn’t been shy about flinging missiles and SEAL hit squads into Pakistan to root out these same insurgents—to muted protest when the Pakistani government even bothers to protest publicly.
There are other examples, too, but rather than debunking the hype over these leaks, it’s probably more important to look at how context-free most of the coverage of the leaks really is. The New York Times makes a conscious effort to note that President Obama is not, as is being reported almost everywhere else, blithely in denial about Pakistan’s support to the insurgency, but they’re in rare company in that sense.
Der Spiegel reports that the drones used to so much effect in Pakistan aren’t as effective as the official spokesmen would have us believe. Are we to be surprised that the U.S. government reaches for panaceas and spins how awesome it is? Marc Ambinder reported that U.S. and Afghan officials are covering up civilian deaths, but that’s been a public problem for years.
While all of these things are true, they’re also low-hanging fruit. We already knew that the Afghan government is weak and ineffective; that Pakistan’s complicated relationship to Afghanistan makes the war immeasurably more difficult; that the U.S. sometimes kills innocent people. You don’t need access to specialized knowledge of the war, or the histories of either country, or insight into the inner workings of the intelligence community to understand these things—you can learn it watching CNN.