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Afghan expose

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST


JULIAN ASSANGE AT a press conference in London. Some 92,000 documents on the war in Afghanistan were released by the website WikiLeaks to The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel.-LEON NEAL/AP

JULIAN ASSANGE AT a press conference in London. Some 92,000 documents on the war in Afghanistan were released by the website WikiLeaks to The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel.-LEON NEAL/AP

The WikiLeaks documents confirm reports about the scale of civilian casualities in the Afghan war and the ISI's strong links with the Taliban.

OFFICIALS in Washington and Islamabad have reason to be perturbed by the tens of thousands of documents released by WikiLeaks in July. Though the documents, which cover the period between 2004 and 2009, do not reveal anything substantial that is not already in the public realm, they detail the killings of more than 20,000 Afghan civilians.

The Barack Obama administration, instead of introspecting, is threatening with dire consequences those involved in the leak of the documents, alleging that they now have blood on their hands. Islamabad, though inured to a great degree by the continuous allegations of collusion with sections of the insurgents, has to fend off more criticisms now.

Targeting Indians

As many as 180 of the files released pertain to the Inter-Services Intelligence's (ISI) role in training and arming the Taliban. British Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit to India in the last week of July, agreed with his hosts that Pakistan's involvement with terror groups was destabilising the continent. The WikiLeaks logs revealed that Indian development projects and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan were regularly targeted by militants at the prompting of their handlers in Pakistan.

Even before the war logs were released, it was clear that Pakistan was far from happy with India's growing presence in Afghanistan. India had said that the attack on its embassy in Kabul was the handiwork of the Haqqani faction of the Taliban, which had close ties to the Pakistani security establishment. After the WikiLeaks expose, the Indian government issued a statement demanding that Pakistan cease forthwith its policy of sponsoring terrorism and stop the utilisation of its territory for recruiting and providing haven to terrorists.

The Pakistan government has described the documents as skewed and out of touch with the reality on the ground. The Obama administration will, however, find it difficult to gloss over the documented evidence of strong linkages between the ISI and the Afghan Taliban, despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent assertions that Islamabad needed just a little more of friendly prodding to fully subscribe to the American agenda in Afghanistan.

The Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who was given an unprecedented three-year extension mainly at the urging of the Obama administration, was overseeing the ISI's activities in Afghanistan and elsewhere during the period covered by the leaked documents.

The U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies have said that the leaked files have not revealed anything new. The Obama administration was quick to point out that the events covered in the Afghan War Diary, as WikiLeaks calls the documents, occurred during George W. Bush's presidency. But they do reveal some previously unknown massacres, such as the targeting of a busload of civilians by French troops in October 2008, and a similar incident two months later involving U.S. troops. Many civilians were killed and seriously injured in both the incidents.

There is also an incident that occurred in 2007, when U.S. planes targeted a village to kill a Libyan fighter belonging to Al Qaeda. Instead of the Libyan, seven Afghan police officers were killed.

The War Diary documents numerous instances of serious indiscipline among the Afghan security forces trained by the West. These include firing on innocent civilians, profiting from the drug trade, and infighting and mass desertions. Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants the same Afghan forces to be completely in charge of the country's security by 2014. At the Kabul conference held in early July, attended by top officials from all the countries involved in Afghanistan, there was open support for this deadline proposed by Karzai by none other than Hillary Clinton.

Another important revelation was that the Taliban had acquired heat-seeking ground-to-air missiles, which may have resulted in the downing of a few U.S. and NATO planes and helicopters.

The media had written about Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders being selectively targeted for assassination and the collateral damage that has frequently resulted from such strikes. The War Diary, however, fleshes out the details. It describes the activities of Task Force 373, a squad specifically created by the U.S. to eliminate individuals on its wanted list in Afghanistan. Task Force 373 has become even more active under the Obama administration. The War Diary also throws more light on the increasing use of Reaper and Predator drones, which have rained bombs on thousands of Afghan civilians from a height of 50,000 feet (15 km). The Obama administration has considerably accelerated the use of the killer drones and other forms of targeted killings. Counter-insurgency measures and the idea of militarily defeating the Taliban have been put on the back burner.

Good Taliban

Eliminating Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders with whom the Americans and the Pakistanis do not want to do business seems to be the order of the day. Senior White House sources told the American media after the leak of the documents that they hoped that the recent bonhomie between Karzai and Kayani would help get the so-called good Taliban on board so as to facilitate a political settlement. As much as $300 million has been officially set aside by the U.S. and allies such as Japan to lure middle-ranking Taliban leaders to the negotiating table. The ISI is expected to do most of the arm-twisting and cajoling to get the recalcitrant Taliban on board.

WikiLeaks has on earlier occasions published top-secret Indian government documents. They include classified documents on the Unique Identification Authority, which was leaked in October last year. The other important document leaked was the draft of the India-European Union Free Trade agreement and a report by the Finance Ministry on diluting Environmental Impact Assessment norms.

WikiLeaks has said that it is yet to release huge amounts of documents pertaining to Afghanistan. There is a possibility that the covert activities of other countries, including India, could figure in future disclosures. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange recently said that his organisation had several million files waiting to be released on every country in the world having a population of more than a million. Out of the 92,000 documents from the secret Pentagon files in its possession, only 76,000 have been posted online. WikiLeaks has said that it is screening the rest of the documents before releasing them as it does not want any harm to come to individuals whose names figure in them.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates recently said that WikiLeaks was already responsible for a number of deaths. The Taliban has announced that it will hunt down the informers whose names figure in the documents. However, so far there have been no known revenge killings reported as a result of the documents.

Gates has said that the battlefield consequences of the leaks are potentially severe and dangerous for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. But his alarmist view is not shared by Major General John Campbell, the U.S. Commander in eastern Afghanistan. He told reporters that the release of the documents had not changed the military's operations or tactics.

Senior American officials tend to forget that the leaks of intelligence assessments have only substantiated stories about the scale of civilian carnage in Afghanistan. The 20,000 deaths that have been documented are only a fraction of the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan in the last nine years under occupation.

Popular support

The leaked documents also prove that the resistance has popular support and does not have to depend on groups such as Al Qaeda to carry on the fight. There are reports of more than 27,000 enemy actions and more than 23,000 explosive hazards (IEDs) placed by the enemy. The documents also show that there were 273 demonstrations held by Afghan civilians against the presence of occupation forces. Afghan civilian casualties were understated in the U.S. Army documents. For instance, the documents report that only 56 insurgents were killed in the NATO air attack in Kunduz in September 2009. But the actual number of civilians killed was 142, including many women and children.

Assange, the driving force behind the expose, has said that many of the informers whose names figure in the leaked documents were anyway acting in a criminal way by providing false information to their American paymasters with the aim of creating victims themselves. Assange has justified his action on the grounds that the vast sweep of abuses, everyday squalor and carnage of war the continuous deaths of children, insurgents, allied forces and [many] thousands of war crimes needed to be exposed for the sake of accountability. United Nations Security Council Resolution 917 adopted in March 2010 calls for full respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms and international humanitarian law throughout Afghanistan.

Assange, who has been working under tremendous pressure and increasing threats from Washington, has said in interviews that the archives will have a decisive impact on international public opinion and decision-makers in Western capitals. There is a mood to end the war in Afghanistan. This information won't do it alone, but it will shift political will in a significant manner, he told the German magazine Der Spiegel, which, along with The Guardian and The New York Times, was made privy to the documents.

Public opinion in the West, including the U.S., has turned overwhelmingly against the war in Afghanistan. July was the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, with 66 killed in action. As many as 102 Democratic Congressmen voted against the continuation of the war in late July, signalling to the White House that their support should no longer be taken for granted. They were joined by 12 Republican Congressmen who voted against the additional $33 billion being sanctioned for the Afghan war. Senator Richard Lugar, an influential Republican, warned that Washington could go on spending billions of dollars without reaching a satisfying conclusion.

Senior Obama administration officials have been quick to reassure the Pakistani and Afghan leaderships that they are not going to leave Afghanistan in a hurry. Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued statements that they would stay in the region for as long as it took to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Gates specifically stated that the U.S. was not making a substantial withdrawal of troops anytime soon. He stressed that the Obama administration was re-emphasising the message that the U.S. was not leaving Afghanistan in the July of 2011. He said that the date only signified a transition process and a thinning of our ranks.

U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden told the media that the number of troops to be withdrawn next year would be as low as 2,000. The exit strategy from Afghanistan that Obama has been talking about is evidently yet to be formulated. The impact of the WikiLeaks documents on public opinion may yet force the Obama administration's hand and make the occupation forces leave Afghanistan by 2014 as originally envisaged.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 27, 2010.)



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