By Alex Kingsbury

The documents posted on WikiLeaks present a confusing picture of the Afghanistan war

The 76,000 or so once-secret Afghanistan war military reports made public recently constitute something of a Rorschach test. Posted online by an anti-government-secrecy website called WikiLeaks, the documents drew a variety of alternative descriptions. They provide evidence of American military capability and American military shortcomings, of commendable humanitarianism and possible war crimes, of progress in training Afghan troops and of Pakistan's duplicitous role helping the Taliban. The mass of individual reports, like so many inkblots, doesn't present a coherent picture but leaves readers to draw from it what they want about the war.

The White House and officials in the Pentagon and the intelligence community contend that the cache of documents, while a grave compromise of national security, provide evidence of little that has not already entered the public debate during the eight years of war. "While I'm concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations, the fact is, these documents don't reveal any issues that haven't already informed our public debate on Afghanistan," President Obama said.

Other leaders echoed that sentiment. On Capitol Hill, Gen. James Mattis, who is undergoing a confirmation process to lead U.S. Central Command, was asked last week about the leaks by lawmakers. "One of the newspaper headlines was that war is a tense and dangerous thing," he said. "If that is news, I don't know who it's news to that's on this planet."

Still, it was a considerable headache for the Obama administration, which was already facing a growing erosion of Democratic support for the war both on Capitol Hill and around the nation. The House recently passed a $59 billion bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by a vote of 308 to 114, but the 102 Democrats voting no was double the number who opposed a war funding measure last year.

The thousands of documents, which date between 2004 and 2009, could best be described as postage stamp-sized views of the war. The majority are so-called "significant activity reports," which military units on the battlefield file for incidents ranging from car accidents to mortar attacks to pitched battles. Some of these reports are detailed while others are sparse in both their context and their recitation of events. All of them are written in military jargon, which makes them difficult for the casual reader to understand.

Most troubling to U.S. lawmakers is the picture that some documents paint of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, showing tacit cooperation with, if not outright support for, the Taliban. Some U.S. officials have long complained that Pakistan, which gets billions of dollars in aid as a key ally, has been playing a double game by supporting the Taliban both to keep receiving U.S. aid and as a means to counter India's influence in the region. But to have it spelled out in the battlefield dispatches makes for compelling reading.

One of the chief Pakistani villains, as described by the documents, is retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, who formerly headed the ISI and worked closely with the CIA during the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. One of the most surprising intelligence reports describes a Dec. 17, 2006, meeting of senior members of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan with Gul allegedly in attendance: "During this meeting Gul claimed he dispatched three unidentified individuals to Kabul City to carry out IED [bomb]attacks during the Eid celebration. Gul instructed two of the individuals to plant IEDs along the roads frequently utilized by Government of Afghanistan (GOA) and ISAF [international forces] vehicles. The third individual is to carry out a suicide attack utilizing a suicide vest against GOA or ISAF entities. Reportedly Gul's final comment to the three individuals was make the snow warm in Kabul, basically telling them to set Kabul aflame."

Both Pakistani officials and Gul himself dismissed such reports as falsifications, but they largely align with what U.S. officials have for years generally contended about the split loyalties of their Pakistani allies. U.S. officials have not challenged the authenticity of the WikiLeak documents.

The documents offer to the public views of the war rarely seen by those outside the military. There are reports of NATO troops mistakenly shooting Afghan civilians at checkpoints, heavy drug use by Afghan soldiers, U.S. Special Forces teams tracking high-value targets, clandestine CIA activities (so-called "other government agency" personnel), coalition forces paying Afghan journalists, and routine meetings between U.S. officials and Afghan citizens.

It is this last category that poses the most danger, Washington worries. Several U.S. officials warned that the information endangers those Afghans, Pakistanis, and others who have cooperated secretly with coalition forces. Numerous documents contain the names of friendly Afghan contacts and details of the meetings. A review was underway to determine who may have been put at risk by the release. Pentagon chief Robert Gates told reporters Thursday that the release would not only endanger lives, but will make other nations reluctant to cooperate in future, particularly on intelligence sharing. Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks, said Monday that his site withheld an additional 15,000 documents from the posting in order to redact sensitive information about individuals.

While the source that provided the documents to the website is unclear, Pentagon officials say that 22-year-old Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst charged by the military earlier this month with illegally downloading 150,000 classified diplomatic cables from government computers, is considered a "person of interest." U.S. officials suspect Manning provided the documents to WikiLeaks, which hasn't posted them so far.

Both the Afghan documents and the cable traffic that Manning allegedly copied were distributed on the military's widely used Secret Internet Protocol Router (SIPR) network, which is classified as "secret." Thousands of military personnel and contractors have access to the SIPR database, which does not contain the military and intelligence community's most closely guarded secrets, such as so-called sensitive compartmentalized intelligence.

If supporters and critics of the Afghan war can find accord on one aspect of this document dump, it may be on the challenges of intelligence work: that the first reports are often incomplete or even wrong, that it's difficult to spot the vital information from among the mass of the trivial, and that raw intelligence often offers support for contradictory positions.


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