As soon as Wikileaks posted the 91,000 reports they call the “Afghan War Diary” online, some people immediately compared them to the “Pentagon Papers.” Daniel Elsberg’s 1971 leak of a top-secret Vietnam War study revealed 20 years of presidential-administration deception about American involvement in Southeast Asia. The Afghan War Diary is a reprehensible and damaging revelation of secret intelligence sources and methods that places the lives of U.S. warriors and Afghani informants at greater risk, but the Afghanistan war’s “Pentagon Papers” it’s not.
The New York Times’ publication of the “papers” in 1971 was like throwing gasoline on a fire. They fueled the flames of anti-Vietnam War activism. The reaction to them was the penultimate U.S. nail in the Vietnam War’s coffin—the final nail was Congress cutting off funds. They helped limit the ability of the U.S. to respond to the events that led to the ultimate fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
The Afghan War Diary, essentially a compendium of field reports allegedly provided to Wikileaks by PFC Bradley Manning, is quite different. It does not reveal the same pattern of deception. We have no reason to believe that honest analyses based on these reports, or many of the reports themselves, were not provided to the appropriate committees of Congress.
The diary, in summary, reveals unpublicized civilian casualties, a secret special-forces unit and the increased use of drones to hunt down and kill Taliban leaders, evidence the Taliban acquired surface-to-air missiles, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) support for the Taliban, and intelligence sources and methods.
Regarding unpublicized civilian casualties, these reports add nothing new to the debate about “collateral damage.” They make it easier to understand why General Stanley McChrystal, when he assumed command, imposed restrictive rules of engagement in an attempt to limit civilian casualties. They do not, however, provide prima facie evidence of war crimes. The Pentagon’s record of investigating and punishing battlefield excesses is a good one; and not making an incident public by itself, when no crime was committed, is not the same as covering up.
The use of secret special-forces units and the increasing use of drone attacks are nothing new and come as no surprise to those who had previously read or written about them. That’s what special forces are trained to do. As drone availability and targeting technology improved, field commanders made greater use of them. They’ve proven to be one of the most effective weapons on the battlefield.
As for the Taliban’s possession of surface-to-air missiles and ISI’s support for the Taliban, there is little here that has not previously appeared in media reports and commentary about the Afghanistan war. The problem of Pakistan’s ISI is well known; how to deal with it is the challenge. The Wikileaks’ postings don’t contribute to a solution.
What’s most disturbing about The Afghan-War-Diary reports is that they provide information on intelligence sources and methods that aid and abet the enemy. Many provide the names and locations of Afghanis cooperating with NATO forces and other information that will allow the Taliban to identify these individuals and eliminate them and members of their families.
As an intelligence officer in Vietnam, I commanded a unit that worked with informants and ran clandestine sources. The Vietnamese and ethnic minorities that gathered and reported information on the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army for us risked their lives and the lives of their friends and families, in some cases their entire village. Many of them were found out and killed. When we departed Vietnam in 1975, most were left behind to fates unknown. Many died in the ensuing massacre of those who cooperated with allied forces.
Losing such people in the course of events is bad enough. Losing them because a disaffected soldier and a group of anti-war activists are willing to sacrifice them to achieve a personal or political end is worse.
Leaking sensitive classified information has become common practice since the Pentagon papers. It’s an easy way for both the altruistic and the cowardly to oppose policies they disagree with. America’s legal system and First Amendment rights make it much easier for Americans than the citizens of other countries. Where the courts will draw the legal line in this case depends on the law, the evidence, and the accused motivation and intent. Where we should draw the moral line between the people’s right to know and freedom of speech on one side and the government’s need for secrecy on the other is up to the American people to judge.
When you hear or read about this story in the media or if you take the time to read the Afghan War Diary yourself, remember that these “revelations” come at a cost in human lives and suffering as undesirable as civilian collateral damage. And they make winning the Afghanistan war more difficult. The perpetrators can’t justify them as serving a higher purpose; and they won’t have the effect on the Afghanistan war the Pentagon papers had on the Vietnam War. The times and the situations are different, and the information leaked fails to indict the warriors and leaders they would accuse.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.