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The AfPak war via WikiLeaks

The release of official United States material by the website Wikileaks confirms and amplifies enduring political assessments of the Afghanistan war, not least on openDemocracy.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 July 2010

The evidence and the sense of escalating violence and increasing insecurity in Afghanistan are reinforced by the WikiLeaks project's circulation on 25 July 2010 of voluminous official communications and reports about the United States's war on the ground.

But the true effect of the mass-leak of 91,370 documents - as stated by Daniel Ellsberg, the vehicle of an important comparable event in the past, the release of the Pentagon Papers which told the classified history of America’s Vietnam war - is to illuminate in great detail what was already suspected. What the Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010 does not and cannot do is reveal the overarching strategic analyses and calculations of the war; these remain hidden in the United States’s inner councils: the Pentagon, the state department, the intelligence agencies and the National Security Council.

WikiLeaks confirms the longstanding concern over Pakistan’s approach to the war. That may be born out of an entrenched fear of India, but it is also part of a determined and deeply embedded effort to maintain maximum influence in Afghanistan. This provides defence in depth against India while also entrenching connections through to central Asia - a hugely important region with which neither Pakistan nor India has direct physical links (see "Afghanistan: victory talk, regional tide", 25 March 2010).

The documents also highlight the great problem of civilian casualties inflicted by Nato/Isaf forces; the difficulties repeatedly faced by troops on the ground; and a persistent failure of the coalition to gain support in many parts of the country. More generally, their effect is further to undermine public backing for the war, even in the United States (see James Traub, "Documents of Mass Destruction", Foreign Policy, 27 July 2010).

President Obama can rightly claim that the leaks relate very much to the George W Bush era and all the mistakes made then, but he cannot avoid the reality that he has now been in office for eighteen months and the Afghan war is inevitably becoming his war (see "Bush to Obama: a toxic legacy", 8 January 2010).

The Marzak setback

What is most revealing about the documents is the way in which they confirm, from inside the system, aspects of the war that have been apparent from public sources for more than eight years. Many in this series of over 450 articles since September 2001 have tried to chronicle some of the more hidden but significant elements of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A consistent focus has been on two elements of both conflicts: the problems arising at an early stage in the wars that are however almost entirely unacknowledged by political leaders; and the effects of the wars on the coalition troops fighting them (see “Afghanistan: a misread war”, 26 February 2009). Two examples from earlier columns illustrate this.

The first example is from March 2002, barely six weeks after President Bush used his state-of-the-union address on 29 January to declare victory in Afghanistan and take the United States on a worldwide battle against a newly defined “axis of evil”, US forces in Afghanistan faced a level of opposition that was both fierce and unexpected  (see "The spiral of war", 6 March 2002). Operation Anaconda was intended to dislodge some remaining Taliban/al-Qaida elements from an area close to Gardez; it met strong resistance that led to forty American troops being killed or injured. Two helicopters were badly damaged and the Pentagon had to bring in five attack-helicopters and two troop-transports to try to regain control.

The Washington Post reported at the time:

“An opening advance on Saturday by Afghan and US Special Forces, intended to flush out suspected al Qaeda fighters in the town of Sirkanel, was thwarted when enemy gunfire kept coalition troops pinned down for hours. Elements of the 10th Mountain Division also were reported stopped in their tracks Saturday in a 12-hour battle outside the town of Marzak. Mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades landed as close as 15 yards to their position, and 13 American soldiers were wounded” (see "Ambush at Takur Ghar", Washington Post, 6 March 2002).

It was both an early indication of what was to come, and should have been a vigorous antidote to the assumption of easy victory. Yet as the Bush administration put Afghanistan to one side and gathered its forces for the assault on Iraq the following year, the lesson was largely ignored. More than seven years later, 140,000 foreign troops are failing to control Afghanistan (see "Afghanistan: an impossible choice", 1 July 2010).

The WikiLeaks documents also contain much evidence of the second factor - the multiple predicaments of soldiers on the ground, now mostly in Afghanistan but with very recent echoes of the seven-year experience in Iraq. In both countries, well-armed and highly professional United States soldiers and marines have faced very competent irregular forces that have resisted and disrupted their attempts to establish control. The experience of US soldiers in the field has repeatedly been one of enduring serious casualties inflicted by these irregular forces (see "Afghanistan's Vietnam portent", 17 April 2008).

The impressive developments in battlefield medicine and rapid casualty evacuation mean that soldiers and marines with terrible limb, face, throat and groin injuries have survived. But the impact of the suffering, let alone the deaths, has been to encourage their comrades to use their persistent advantage – overwhelming firepower - to lethal effect.

The Fallujah blowout

The second example is from April 2004, and the incident concerned is more widely representative in the formidable impact it had on the opposing forces and those supporting them. A year after the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime in April 2003, US forces were facing a potent insurgency in which the city of Fallujah (west of Baghdad) was one of several centres (see Jo Wilding, "Inside the fire", 12 April 2004).

In April 2004, a US marines column got into difficulties after an ambush in the narrow streets of the city; after a three-hour gun battle, it was extricated with great difficulty (see “Between Fallujah and Palestine”, 21 April 2004). A number of marines were wounded though none killed. An embedded Washington Post reporter, Pamela Constable, described what happened next:

“Just before dawn Wednesday… AC-130 Spectre gunships launched a devastating punitive raid over a six-block area around the spot where the convoy was attacked, firing dozens of artillery shells that shock the city and lit up the sky. Marine officials said the area was virtually destroyed and that no further insurgent activity has been seen there” (see “A Wrong Turn, Chaos and a Rescue”, Washington Post, 15 April 2004).

A part of a crowded city was thus destroyed in a retaliatory raid, with nothing said about the civilians killed. The WikiLeaks material gives other examples of the use of firepower in response to what was no doubt a heartfelt reaction to deaths and terrible injuries endured by ordinary military personnel.

Daniel Ellsberg pointedly comments that the high-level, deeply classified military assessments remain such, but the WikiLeaks material does reveal in great detail the texture of what is now at last acknowledged as an unwinnable war.

Eight and a half years ago, and even before the setbacks of Operation Anaconda, an assessment published in openDemocracy concluded:

“Afghanistan may have receded from the headlines but the reality is of a situation that is slowly but surely developing into a widening conflict with global implications” (see “War after war”, 13 February 2002). 

The WikiLeaks tranche is confirmatory evidence of that judgment. It may yet help stimulate a fundamental reassessment of the conduct and strategy of the war - something that is already years overdue.

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