The analogy between the Vietnam War and the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has taken on a new uncanny similarity. The New York Times leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, unveiling years of classified government documents detailing unlawful behavior and wartime atrocities. Simply change the names and locations and you have the Afghan War Diary, a compilation of 91,370 war documents released by WikiLeaks, revealing what the Guardian calls “a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan.”
The leak was distributed to three Western news sources (Der Spiegel, The New York Times, and The Guardian) on the condition that they wait until the July 26th release date. Responses to the latest WikiLeak have been mixed, with some fearing that transparency and accountability will come at the price of more American lives.
The White House promptly condemned WikiLeaks as “irresponsible” and a “threat to our national security”; however, they were also prompt to note that the report covers 2004-2009, when the war was directed by a Republican administration and before President Obama’s surge was implemented.
Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project here at the Institute, warns that the leak might lead to more violence against Americans, but critically points out that “The solution is not less information, but to stop U.S. activities leading to higher than acknowledged civilian casualties.”
Glenn Greenwald from Salon also lauds the value of the new information, defending that “WikiLeaks has yet again proven itself to be one of the most valuable and important organizations in the world.” But Greenwald forecasts that, like the controversy that embroiled the release of the Pentagon Papers, “The war on WikiLeaks, unfortunately, will only intensify now.”
Wikileaks has respectfully withheld 15,000 of the documents at the request of its source for “harm minimization,” but plans to release them all at some point. With this careful understanding of wartime information management, is all of the criticism and concern for Americans’ welfare warranted?
The 75,000 documents already released offer plenty of critical, disparaging fodder to attack the credibility of the U.S. operation ”supporting the aspirations of the Afghan people,” as officially claimed by National Security Advisor General James Jones. WikiLeaks reports instead that, “the material shows that cover-ups start on the ground. When reporting their own activities U.S. Units are inclined to classify civilian kills as insurgent kills, downplay the number of people killed or otherwise make excuses for themselves.”
The report also contains unprecedented news on U.S. Special Ops unit, Task Force 373, which The Guardian describes as a “secret ‘black’ unit of special forces” with the mission to hunt down Taliban leaders for ‘kill or capture’ without trial. This unit, as revealed by the files, is responsible for some of the worst civilian atrocities in a war that has already led to at least 12,000 civilian deaths, according to UN and Human Rights Watch estimates. Gut-wrenching excerpts on the activities of TF373 can be found here.
The logs contain details of 144 incidents of US troops directly causing civilian casualties, but David Leigh and Nick Davies of AlterNet point out that these only account for 195 civilian deaths. That leaves an estimated gap of 11,900 civilian deaths completely unaccounted for and undocumented by the US in Afghanistan.
Rather than playing defense and condemning WikiLeaks’ action as an “irresponsible leak,” the Obama administration has an invaluable opportunity to utilize this sensation constructively: With a bright spotlight illuminating shortcomings of the past, Obama ought to galvanize this energy to change the war’s present futile trajectory.