President Ronald Reagan was fond of telling a joke about a boy gazing at a giant pile of horse manure and saying hopefully, "There has to be a pony in there somewhere." Researchers confronting the giant heap of some 92,000 documents from Afghanistan just dumped on the Internet by WikiLeaks may be thinking the same. Surely this six-year record of the U.S. military's actions in Afghanistan will reveal something truly surprising?
The preliminary answer is that there is less to the documents than meets the eye. A compilation of raw, unedited reports from units in the field from January 2004 to December 2009, the documents show in painful detail what we knew in broad terms already: that the war in Afghanistan is a brutal slog; that the Taliban appear to be winning it; and that U.S and coalition forces in Afghanistan have felt underresourced in the field and underappreciated back home.
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But finding astonishing new nuggets in these documents is going to be difficult. Take probably the single most contentious issue in Afghanistan: civilian casualties caused by coalition forces. The documents include field reports of 144 incidents in which civilians were killed or wounded by coalition fire. Total casualty toll: 195 dead, 174 wounded. For the six-year period covered by the documents, those are strikingly small numbers.
What do the figures mean, though? U.S. commanders have disputed specific incidents, but they’ve never denied that American and NATO forces have killed a significant number of Afghan civilians. By United Nations' estimates, some 2,100 civilians died in 2008 alone; roughly 700 of those were killed by "pro-government” forces. In 2009, around 2,300 civilians were killed, of which perhaps 550 died at the hands of "pro-government" forces. Until the leaked reports can be cross-checked against databases kept by the United Nations, it's impossible to know whether the 144 incidents in the WikiLeaks documents are part of that acknowledged toll, or whether they represent civilian casualties concealed by coalition forces.
Or take what is arguably the single most sensational claim in the documents: that the Taliban have acquired heat-seeking missiles, and that NATO has covered this up. Fear of the Taliban getting these missiles first appears in the documents in the fall of 2005, with a report that insurgent commanders in Zabul and Kandahar provinces had acquired a batch of them. It’s military legend how Stinger missiles supplied by the United States to the mujahedin in the 1970s wreaked havoc on the Soviets' helicopters in Afghanistan. Yet the only downing of a coalition aircraft that the documents suggest might have been due to a shoulder-fired missile came in May 2007, when militants downed a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Helmand province. The Chinook was flying low and slow, however, so it could have been a victim of an ordinary, rocket-propelled grenade, a weapon common among Taliban fighters. The documents show multiple reports from pilots of alleged near-misses by missiles, but no further casualties. So the evidence is tenuous. If the Taliban really did have antiaircraft missiles, it’s hard to see why they haven't shot down the Predator and Reaper drones that have taken such a toll on their fighters. (In the space of 24 hours this past weekend, three drone strikes on houses in northwestern Pakistan killed more than two dozen fighters.)
Other "revelations"—that a U.S. "black" Special Ops team has the task of tracking down and killing high-ranking Taliban, and that Predator strikes have been growing in intensity—are old news.
In a strange way, the leaked reports can even be taken as reassuring. The absence of surprises suggests that the media did a reasonable job of painting a fair and broad picture of how poorly things were going in Afghanistan in those six years.
But the absence of surprises will not prevent political fallout in Washington. Sen. John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rushed out a statement classically designed to hold the line while he figured out what his party's response would be. The documents, Kerry said, "raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan" and "may well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent." What Kerry meant by this is unclear. He has made multiple visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he's talked with anyone he wanted. So what "realities" do these documents reveal, and what "calibrations" does he have in mind? Senator Kerry's press office referred all queries to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where a spokesperson said the senator had nothing else to say on the matter.
The controversy most likely to be generated anew in Washington by these documents is a hardy perennial: what are Pakistan's relationships with the Taliban and associated groups? Specifically, does Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) direct or even supply the insurgents? The WikiLeaks trove has virtually weekly reports alleging ISI involvement in actions by the insurgents. The reports are, for the most part, little more than gossip—though a few include details that check out. But the sheer volume of reports, allied to the multiplicity of sources, make them hard to dismiss.
The documents end in December of last year. That, of course, was when President Obama announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, including a reinvigorated effort to deepen relations with Pakistan. Whether Obama's campaign will succeed remains uncertain, though the early indications are not promising. When historians come to write the story of “what went wrong” in Afghanistan, this cache of leaked documents will be a primary source.