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Same Docs, Different Stories

The three outlets gifted by WikiLeaks take three different approaches
July 26, 2010

On Sunday, three news outlets published the results of their investigations into 91,731 classified U.S. military documents that they had received from secret-sharing Web site WikiLeaks. The New York Times, The Guardian , and Der Spiegel each led today with their findings on their front pages and online with multi-dimensional, interactive reports on “one of the biggest leaks in US military history.” The documents, spanning 2004 to 2009 and pertaining to the war in Afghanistan, were concurrently published on the WikiLeaks site.

Mostly, the papers highlight the same discoveries: high incidents of weapons failure among U.S. drones; the actions of task force 373, the secret commando unit tasked with capturing or killing top insurgent leaders; the Taliban’s possession and use of heat-seeking missiles; the hitherto suspected and assumed, but difficult to demonstrate, involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in, and instigation of, Taliban operations against the coalition; and revelations of a higher numbers of civilian casualties than previously acknowledged.

But in shaping their syntheses of these various findings, each paper manages to characterize the discoveries in different ways, mostly to emphasize their relevance to local concerns about the war. The two European papers, both historically against the war, find in the reports cause for great pessimism. The Guardian is particularly brutal in its editorial on the documents:

“These war logs – written in the heat of engagement – show a conflict that is brutally messy, confused and immediate. It is in some contrast with the tidied-up and sanitised “public” war, as glimpsed through official communiques as well as the necessarily limited snapshots of embedded reporting.

… However you cut it, this is not an Afghanistan that either the US or Britain is about to hand over gift-wrapped with pink ribbons to a sovereign national government in Kabul. Quite the contrary. After nine years of warfare, the chaos threatens to overwhelm. A war fought ostensibly for the hearts and minds of Afghans cannot be won like this.”

Der Spiegel finds the coalition vulnerable and its efforts in the region on course for failure. After a summary of the paper’s treatment of the documents, reporters Matthias Gebauer, John Goetz, Hans Hoyng, Susanne Koelbl, Marcel Rosenbach, and Gregor Peter Schmitz write under the subhead, “A Gloomy Picture”:

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But such shows of optimism seem cynical in light of the descriptions of the situation in Afghanistan provided in the classified documents. Nearly nine years after the start of the war, they paint a gloomy picture. They portray Afghan security forces as the hapless victims of Taliban attacks. They also offer a conflicting impression of the deployment of drones, noting that America’s miracle weapons are also entirely vulnerable.

And they show that the war in northern Afghanistan, where German troops are stationed, is becoming increasingly perilous. The number of warnings about possible Taliban attacks in the region — fuelled by support from Pakistan — has increased dramatically in the past year.

Intriguingly, The Times chooses a similar lede in its main report, “View is Bleaker Than Official Portrayal of War in Afghanistan”:

A six-year archive of classified military documents made public on Sunday offers an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.

The secret documents, released on the Internet by an organization called WikiLeaks, are a daily diary of an American-led force often starved for resources and attention as it struggled against an insurgency that grew larger, better coordinated and more deadly each year.

However, its reading of the reports differs from its European counterparts, focusing less on military failures and more on inconsistencies between official accounts of the war from the White House and the revelations of the WikiLeaks reports. The front page story from which that excerpt was lifted documents many of these discrepancies, including incident reports, claiming the Taliban used heat-seeking missiles, that contradict official statements from the White House.

The Times’s reporting is perhaps the most distinguished of the three in that it is the least critical of the U.S.’s prosecution of the war, emphasizing instead revelations over which Americans are likely to feel betrayed. The big WikiLeaks piece the paper runs alongside its summary homes in on revelations that Pakistani’s intelligence agency ISI has been working closely and secretly with the Taliban. Mark Mazzetti, Jane Perlez, Eric Schmitt, and Andrew W. Lehren’s article, “Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan, Reports Assert,” opens:

Americans fighting the war in Afghanistan have long harbored strong suspicions that Pakistan’s military spy service has guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington for its help combating the militants, according to a trove of secret military field reports made public Sunday.

The documents, made available by an organization called WikiLeaks, suggest that Pakistan, an ostensible ally of the United States, allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders.

The reporters focus heavily on the involvement of former ISI leader Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul in insurgency efforts, including suicide bombings, and highlight the U.S. government’s frustration with its supposed regional ally.

American officials have rarely uncovered definitive evidence of direct ISI involvement in a major attack. But in July 2008, the C.I.A.’s deputy director, Stephen R. Kappes, confronted Pakistani officials with evidence that the ISI helped plan the deadly suicide bombing of India’s Embassy in Kabul.

From the current trove, one report shows that Polish intelligence warned of a complex attack against the Indian Embassy a week before that bombing, though the attackers and their methods differed. The ISI was not named in the report warning of the attack.

German news magazine Der Spiegel also gives heavy weight to the ISI and the former general, using the revelation less to reveal a betrayal than as part of cumulative evidence of the inadequate nature of the war’s execution. Under the subheading “System Failures, Computer Glitches and Human Error,” in a section that includes details on the failures and problems of drones, its reporters write:

The documents clearly show that the Pakistani intelligence agency is the most important accomplice the Taliban has outside of Afghanistan. The war against the Afghan security forces, the Americans and their ISAF allies is still being conducted from Pakistan.

The country is an important safe haven for enemy forces — and serves as a base for issuing their deployment. New recruits to the Taliban stream across the Pakistan-Afghan border, including feared foreign fighters — among them Arabs, Chechnyans, Uzbekis, Uighurs and even European Islamists.

According to the war logs, the ISI envoys are present when insurgent commanders hold war councils — and even give specific orders to carry out murders. These include orders to try to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai. For example, a threat report dated August 21, 2008 warned: “Colonel Mohammad Yusuf from the ISI had directed Taliban official Maulawi Izzatullah to see that Karzai was assassinated.”

Highlighting the inadequacies of the coalition’s war in Afghanistan, the magazine takes a decidedly local angle, writing that “Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr… stumbled into the conflict with great naivety.” Der Spiegel’s reporters lift from “threat reports” in the WikiLeaks documents that show the Bundeswehr were in greater danger in northern Afghanistan than the German government had indicated, or the soldiers had anticipated, in the region they had once joked was like a spa town.

In a “threat report” dated May 31, 2007, German troops based in Kunduz reported on the general situation following another suicide attack. “Contrary to all expectations of the Regional Command North, the attacks of the insurgents in Kunduz are going on as foreseen by the Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunduz and mentioned before several times,” the German document states, adding that more attacks, particularly against ISAF troops, “are strongly expected.”

The soldiers appear to have been correct to have felt they were under a state of siege. The documents that have been obtained are comprised primarily of so-called “threat reports,” thousands of danger scenarios and concrete warnings about planned attacks. These reports provide a clearer picture of the deterioration of the security situation in northern Afghanistan than the information provided by the German government or the federal parliament, the Bundestag, which must provide a legal mandate for the Bundeswehr’s deployments abroad. Police checkpoints are constantly attacked or come under fire, patrols are targeted in deadly ambushes and roadside bombs explode.

The left-wing magazine concludes its story with an ominous diagnosis for the future of the mountainous northern combat zone in which the German army is fighting.

One thing, however, is certain. These thousands of documents indicate that, after almost nine years of war, a victory in Hindu Kush looks farther away than ever.

Across the Channel, The Guardian offers the kind of excellent interactive, video-packed online package we’ve come to expect from the newspaper industry’s Web leader. Covering the basic revelations of the documents, its reporting is steered by an outrage at the number of unreported civilian casualties unveiled by the WikiLeaks logs (you can see the number and location of these casualties—along with casualties among Afghan and coalition troops—in an interactive map from The Guardian here.)

In the Web site’s anchor story on the leaked documents, “Afghanistan war logs: massive leak of secret files exposes truth of occupation,” writers Nick Davies and David Leigh paint a picture of a botched war in which coalition troops, either through confusion or self-protection, have killed and maimed civilians. The incendiary lede touches on the key revelations of the reports:

A huge cache of secret US military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency.

Then, the bulk of this central report is given to detailing previously unknown incidents in which Afghan civilians were killed. Again, the local focus means highlighted sections of the report focus on British and European troops.

At least 195 civilians are admitted to have been killed and 174 wounded in total, but this is likely to be an underestimate as many disputed incidents are omitted from the daily snapshots reported by troops on the ground and then collated, sometimes erratically, by military intelligence analysts.

Bloody errors at civilians’ expense, as recorded in the logs, include the day French troops strafed a bus full of children in 2008, wounding eight. A US patrol similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers, and in 2007 Polish troops mortared a village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant woman, in an apparent revenge attack.

Questionable shootings of civilians by UK troops also figure. The US compilers detail an unusual cluster of four British shootings in Kabul in the space of barely a month, in October/November 2007, culminating in the death of the son of an Afghan general. Of one shooting, they wrote: “Investigation controlled by the British. We are not able to get [sic] complete story.”

The hot language—“bloody errors at civilians’ expense”—and assumptions that there is an underestimate, are typical of The Guardian’s approach to the WikiLeaks documents, a trove of records it describes as “an unvarnished and often compelling account of the reality of modern war.”

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.