Sunday, August 1, 2010

Wikileaks Karma

On July 25, perhaps the greatest breakdown in the history of US intelligence was revealed on the internet with the release of about 75,000 classified military documents under the so-called Wikileaks Afghan War Diary. The massive leak to the public caused a furor. Some say it proves the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. Some say the leaks have jeopardized our military operations.

I’ve watched this story unfold with considerable interest. Many influential or karmic elements are at work here. Many compare this colossal leak with the historic Pentagon Papers disclosure during the Vietnam War. Those opposing the war in Afghanistan will do everything in their power to compare it with Vietnam, so that is a highly convenient analogy.

While the Wikileaks revelations tell the public a few things we didn’t already know, by and large it actually just supports most of what we already knew. The Obama administration, while critical of the national security breach itself, has taken the opportunity to point out that much of the information within the leak in fact supports the decisions the president has made about the war. Let me try to summarize the major contents of this historic disclosure of documents.

The Taliban has a robust intelligence gathering network of its own that keeps it informed of US and Coalition military efforts. The Taliban is being supplied (likely by Iran through cooperative Taliban regions of Pakistan) with heat-seeking missiles to bring down US aircraft. The US is using covert operations to target Taliban leaders. The Afghan government (to which we want to eventually hand over control of the chaotic country so we can leave) is incredibly inefficient, corrupt, and incompetent. US efforts to improve the “system” within Afghanistan have largely failed. The US has killed thousands of innocent Afghan civilians through air strikes. This resulted in new rules of engagement that has negatively impacted the morale of US troops.

For the most part that is what the leaked documents tell us. Of course there are hundreds of specific incidents reported substantiating each of the above statements in great detail. There is no denying that the above statements are factual. The vast majority of the documents are from the 2004-2009 timeframe.

I won’t go into the right or wrong aspects of whether these documents should have been revealed by Wikileaks other than to say that there has always been animosity between the inherently secretive military and the inherently scoop-seeking press. This is just another chapter in that long historical struggle between informing the public and protecting the nature of military knowledge and operations from the enemy.

I will also say that, unfortunately, Wikileaks was neither capable nor qualified to examine and evaluate such a large collection of materials with any high degree of journalistic standards. As a result, leaking these documents to the public has specifically led to the unmasking of several Afghan citizens that have secretly been cooperating with the US military against the Taliban.

It goes without saying that such name dropping in this particular situation places the lives of these useful civilian informants at risk and makes future cooperation by other potentially useful civilians far less likely. At best, it is irresponsible journalism to specifically name names in this instance. But, my guess is that the Swedish-based Wikileaks website opposes the war effort and perhaps intends to damage the war effort at least as much as it intends to “inform.”

As to what else was revealed in the disclosed documents, as I said, it doesn’t reveal much that wasn’t already known. That the Afghan government is corrupt and incompetent is hardly a revelation. It is comparable to the South Vietnamese government in this regard. That comparison would be valid.

That the US efforts to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan population have failed was already well known. Again, there are echoes of Vietnam in such information. We never won over the civilian population we were trying to defend in Vietnam either. However, it bears repeating that the vast majority of the Wikileaks documents are from prior to President Obama taking office. Recent efforts by the now dismissed General Stanley McChrystal were correcting this particular aspect of the war, something neither Wikileaks nor the mainstream press have any interest in pointing out, of course.

McChrystal’s efforts to reduce civilian deaths in combat operations came in the form of strict rules of engagement that effectively placed US troops more at risk thus negatively affecting morale. General David Petreaus has promised to review these rules of engagement. But, McChrystal was right and was having a positive impact as I have previously posted. That it negatively affected US troop morale is a military issue that should be addressed in other ways.

Our troops would much prefer the Iraq approach to the rules of engagement. That is, let’s go in blasting and kill tens of thousands of civilians. Which is precisely what we did in Iraq. The problem is that from experience we have learned that it is counterproductive to do this in Afghanistan. We must win over the civilian population, which is what McChrystal was doing. The negative impact on troop morale was a price he was willing to pay to win the war.

Certainly, our rules of engagement must have a positive effect on the overall war effort or they should be revised. Overall troop morale is an important strategic consideration. But, unless morale is severely tested, generals should not allow morale to affect operations. I see no evidence that troop morale is affecting the quality of our fighting. Furthermore, US troop morale was a problem long before McChrystal. Again, nothing new really in this part of the leak.

The number of civilian deaths as “collateral damage” in US operations has dropped dramatically in 2010 whereas virtually all of the incidents reported by Wikileaks occurred before this year. Given time this sort of thing will have a positive effect on the Afghan population. But, of course, that is not something Wikileaks is interested in noting. Once again, the purpose for revealing these documents is not to inform so much as to encourage defeatism about the war.

That the Taliban has a robust intelligence network of its own and that the Taliban tribal aggregate is far better armed than we were led to believe is new but not exactly shocking. More than anything else this is a condemnation of President Bush’s Iraqi misadventure. Bush took his eye off the ball and allowed the Taliban to become revitalized. A better equipped Taliban is a manifestation of that. I have posted on this before.

Wikileaks apparently wants the global community to take this revelation about the Taliban as a revitalized and competent adversary as definitive proof that, after almost nine years of war, we are losing this war and we should evacuate Afghanistan. That, of course, is a sure sign of weak resolve on our part as a culture. Does anyone seriously think that because the Taliban adjusts to our inadequate focus on Afghanistan due to Bush’s Iraq War that we can’t make our own adjustments and respond effectively? Oh God. Quiver, quiver. The Taliban is stronger. Let’s run. An idiotic perspective.

Proper response: We need to find out who in the hell (mostly likely Iran with some Pakistani cooperation) is supplying this tribal group with advanced weapons and stop the flow of weapons by any means necessary; to militarily address the situation (yeah enter the Taliban regions of Pakistan if need be) if the flow of weapons is not stopped. American aid to Pakistan might also be placed upon the table if we can't rely on the government there to control these Taliban areas of their country. But, regrettably Obama probably doesn’t have the political will be so aggressive. Though, hopefully, at least we have some covert operations going into the Taliban regions of Pakistan. Control of the Taliban support infrastructure in Pakistan is a huge strategic issue in play here.

Still, so what if the Taliban have advanced anti-air weaponry and the like? It is deployed in a tribal way at best. These weapons cannot be strategically important (though they certainly are important tactically) because we’re not talking about very many of them relative to the Coalition forces committed to operations. That is, unless we allow them to become strategically important from the perspective of our own culture. We have the finest army in the world. You want to tell me we can’t handle something like this? Get a grip people.

If the Afghan War is lost it is because it is lost in our hearts and minds. Second-rate journalism like the Rolling Stone-McChrystal debacle and now the Wikileaks classified document dump are daggers right to the heart of America’s will to fight. We want out of Afghanistan. We have forgotten the force of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the flaunting by the Taliban as a safe-haven for al-Qaeda. That no longer motivates our response. America is culturally weak, our resolve does not match that of the Taliban. Is this where this is all going?

I hope not because that really does sound like Vietnam.

Two journalistic moments define how shallow we are as a people. We spend all this money on the military and pride ourselves as a powerful nation but the fact is if the war we enter doesn’t have conventional lines of battle and we fail to kick ass hard and fast and get out of there then we quickly become wimps. To that extent, the Wikileaks incident reveals more about who we are as a people than it does about the war in Afghanistan. The karma (or effect) this leak will have on our war effort will be interesting to observe in the weeks ahead.

At a higher level, the Wikileaks disclosure once again demonstrates the power and hazards of the internet. The disclosure of the names of Afghan civilians assisting the US military for all the world to see is a dangerous, ill-considered symptom of our sacred belief in freedom of information. To a wider extent, the impact of the 75,000 documents as a whole is to bring the Afghan War into vivid detail without any context whatsoever.

Individuals will read into these documents whatever they wish. Some will find evidence of our on-going and imminent defeat. A few will find that the changes brought about by McChrystal are timely, relevant, and – perhaps – hopeful. So, on the most positive note possible, Wikileaks has made a large contribution to the public discourse about the war effort. That the public is weary of war tinges the nature of the Wikileaks disclosures with a defeatist attitude. People know the military will hide how badly a war is going. That's what gives the press its legitimacy.

Reports of Americans dying in combat in the bloodiest month of the war so far this year come against the backdrop of a dismissed general and a reminder that the military is never forthcoming. If there are secrets then there must be cover-ups for bad news. The uncertainty all this creates in the minds of American culture only lessens our resolve in Afghanistan.

We need to get more aggressive. We need to do so over a period of years. That these were McChrystal’s motivations is evident to anyone seeking information. But you have to seek it, beyond the sensational news like the Wikileaks disclosure. You have to remember that for every dozen or so American causalities, many more dozens of Taliban leaders and insurgents are being systematically taken out. Right now. As you read these words. That doesn’t get into news, however. This is not a “body count” war like Vietnam. Still, as always, the press is more interested in being antagonistic toward the military (and vice versa) than it is in being objective.

At bottom, the Wikileaks event reveals that Obama inherited a situation in Afghanistan that essentially suffered from Bush’s attention-deficit, trigger-happy foreign policy. It reveals that the Taliban used the opportunity afforded them by the Iraq War to rebuild into a more formidable foe. It reveals that past rules of engagement were alienating the Afghan population. Present rules of engagement hurt troop morale. And there is where things stand. The karma of Wikileaks is still in motion. How will it affect our culture?

The war is not militarily lost. But, it might be already lost from a cultural perspective. In a way, perhaps, the fallout from the Wikileaks incident doesn’t reveal anything at all. It merely reflects who we are. Like a mirror.

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