07.27.10

An Active Duty Soldier on the Lessons of the WikiLeaks Documents

WikiLeaks’ posting of thousands of classified documents has caused a firestorm in Washington—and on the ground in Afghanistan. An anonymous active duty soldier says the released information could be a good thing—to validate troops’ concerns and increase transparency.

I was once asked what it would take to win this war, and I think the first step would be to say out loud what can’t be said in polite company, and that is: among our friends are enemies and, conversely, among our enemies, we might find friends.

To the soldier who has spent any time in the region, the leak of more than 90,000 classified military documents tells the story that no one wants to hear.

This, what the Obama Administration calls the “Overseas Contingency Operations”—and which the troops on the ground jokingly refer to as “The Ocho” in a mocking reference to the film Dodge Ball and its impossible many-layered hamburger—is an ugly and brutal fight in which truth on the ground doesn’t really synch nicely with progress reports and diluted Power Point presentations delivered to members of the House and Senate on fact-finding missions.

At this decisive moment in history, the leaked documents may turn out to be a good thing.

The truth on the ground, however, can be found in blogs and news reports, and images of the soldiers’ frustration as they grapple with “The Ocho.” Frustration can be read not just in secret cables and military reports—it is apparent at all levels, among soldiers of all ranks, from privates to generals.

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It is a frustration that comes from endless patrols, down deserted roads, into places such as Helmand province, Konar and hundreds of other places we can scarcely pronounce. It is a frustration that comes from being unable to locate or kill an enemy that blends into the hills and rarely shows himself. It is a frustration born out of having to extend courtesy and civility to an enemy that does not return it in kind. It is a frustration that comes from 12 months in “the Stan” and the question that lingers when you are gone: Why are we there?

The classified intelligence, released on Sunday to The New York Times and other media outlets by WikiLeaks, indirectly alleges that Pakistan is the root cause of all that ails  the war effort in Afghanistan.

And it’s true—Pakistan is as much of a friend to the United States as Japan was on December 6, 1941.

Since the United States ousted the Taliban, Afghanistan has become the world’s largest distributer (by proxy) of opium. And although the United States spends nearly $1 billion a year supporting the Pakistani military, Pakistan (and its spy agency) has become perhaps one of the largest sponsors of the insurgency in Afghanistan (again by proxy).

Despite this “revelation,” the overall effect of the leak will not be a lasting one—nor will it have the same profound effect as the leak the Pentagon Papers had.

Afghanistan, after all, is not Vietnam.

The leaked documents surfaced at a precarious time, however—a month after Gen. Stanley McChrystal was ousted—a period of seeming confusion that appeared to be an opening of maneuver room for Pakistan’s military to increase its influence in the region.

At this decisive moment in history, the leaked documents may turn out to be a good thing, forcing policy makers to ask questions about what exactly constitutes success in the region and what tough choices we have regarding the perplexing situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (And this, in an election year!)

Beyond that, the released documents may have an effect on the soldiers on the ground, who have been told to quell dissension in the ranks when it comes to the purpose of this mission.

This release of the classified documents validate their concerns, gripes, and complaints by illustrating that they are shared by others in the military, even at higher levels. And so, consequently, the release may damage the unquestioning acceptance that an army at war must have to survive in battle. (This is not to say a mutiny is inevitable—on the contrary—but in the heat of battle, the question “why?” can cause its fair share of trouble.)

We can’t see it now. But in years to come, we will know if the leaks were really a watershed moment.

I, for one, believe that the leaked information wasn’t overtly damaging to national security, or the war effort in general. And I believe that, in this day and age of “hope” and political correctness, a little truth from the ground is probably a good thing.

This has been called a new kind of war. And what is called for in a new kind of war is a new way of fighting.

Perhaps this leak, though clearly illegal, is a good thing. Transparency in war can lead to casualties; secrecy, however, carries its own price.

We have been taught that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

But the lesson contained in these 90,000 pages is a lesson that comes from a different question: Who really is our enemy, and how long will it take us to figure it out?

Anonymous (The author is a soldier, currently serving in the U.S. military.)