Monday, July 26, 2010

The "Afghan Diaries" Wikileaks

Barely 24 hours into the news cycle, I sort of feel like I'm just piling on to a lot of things that have already been said.  The reaction of many reporters and most people following the war is that there's little surprising in the 77,000 document archive.  After a brief scroll through articles and the comma-delimited version of the docs in MS Excel, it seems like the brow-wrinklers are:

  1. The Pentagon hiding the fact that man-portable SAMs (MPADS) like the venerable SA-7 are responsible for shooting down at least one CH-47 Chinook helicopter over Afghanistan.  Before now we have USAF claiming that while some SA-7 style weapons had been fired at ISAF aricraft, they are all protected against actual missile strikes, and claims that small arms brought down the choppers lost there.  Given the role in American-supplied Stingers and Redeyes in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that the Taliban should adopt MPADS should be no surprise.  The question is where they came from - leftovers from the 1980s (doubtful), Pakistan, Iran, or elsewhere.  The answer is potentially a big deal, because it tells you where the Taliban are spending their opium dollars, and who is actively working against the United States in the region.
  2. Dozens of documents provide the names of Afghans that have helped ISAF troops with information or material.  As others have already pointed out, Julian Assange can claim all he wants that since all the docs are several months old, no operation matters are effected, but these people just got outed to the Taliban, who will think nothing of executing them for helping us.  Not is there a revenge motive here, but it discourages others from helping us out.
There are some big picture issues to be discussed. 

First, the "Afghan Diaries" are hardly the Pentagon Papers.  The high-level discussions that made the Pentagon Papers such a seismic event just aren't there. The rest, as Abu Muqawama said via twitter, is just an unvarnished look at war.  It seems shocking to many people simply because most of us have been so insulated from what is happening in Afghanistan, from the resource constraints, and even from the fact that it has been on the back burner until relatively recently - the 2003 invasion of Iraq sidetracked things quite a bit.

Second, Pakistan continues to have multiple personalities in its dealings with the United States, the Taliban, and Afghanistan.  While the Pakistani Intelligence Service (ISI) and parts of the Pakistani military provide support to the Taliban, other parts of the Pakistani military and government support NATO efforts in Afghanistan.  While the New York Times and Der Spiegel make claims about Pakistani support for the Taliban based on the wikileaks documents, it really isn't anything new.  What it should do is finally cause us to think about who our allies are and the kind of financial support we provide.  In all honesty, Pakistan is the type of double-edged ally that Saudi Arabia is - supports us when it is good for them, and works against us in significant ways that don't always directly impact us.  Like in dealing with the Saudis, we need to carefully consider how the weapons we provide Pakistan will be used, and whether we will be facing them at some point in the future.

Third, most of the documents are from before Gen. McChrystal took command and changed the rules of engagement.  You can tell that roadblocks and convoys are manned by soldiers ready to shoot first and ask questions later.  That's not the best way to fight an insurgency.  Shooting at two guys on a motorcycle because it looks like they have a weapon is not a great way to win hearts and minds when it turns out to be a foot pump.  Expecting people to stop at roadblocks when they are used to highway robbery and banditry, and then shooting at them when they don't is similarly going to make it harder to gain the respect of the common people.  And, yes, it is asking a lot to ask troops to not pull the trigger when someone zips by their checkpoint, and could lead to disaster.  There is no easy way when fighting insurgents or terrorists.

Despite these issues, the corruption, the weakness and illegitimacy of the Kabul regime, the documents hosted at wikileaks  do not, as Jon Taplin would have it, show that the concept of counterinsurgency is flawed.  It may be that our efforts in Afghanistan were inconsistent, that we need more coherent strategy and goals, that tactics need to be revised, but that doesn't on its own invalidate COIN as a doctrine.  What the documents do illustrate is that we need to define our goals and develop a coherent strategy to achieve those goals, then determine what tactics and troop levels we need to get there.  That's a national conversation we still haven't had.

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