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Leaking the war in Afghanistan

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COMMENTS

26 July 2010 14:05

Here are five initial comments on Wikileak's latest coup — the leak of some 90,000 US military files on the war in Afghanistan:

  1. Going on the initial analysis of the information by the three newspapers given the material by Wikileaks (The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel), much of it seems pretty unremarkable.  Mostly, the files seem to confirm what we already knew, or strongly suspected: the success of the Taliban improvised explosive device strategy, the fact that the coalition was killing lots of civilians by an over-reliance on airpower, the growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles, corruption in the Afghan government, Pakistan’s double-dealing in Afghanistan etc — all of this and more has been variously reported in the past.
  2. A notable exception is the information on man portable missile (MANPADS) attacks on coalition aircraft.  This is evocative because it was the Afghan Mujahideen's use of such weapons in the 1980s that helped cripple the Soviet war effort in Afghanistan.  This is potentially very disturbing and certainly raises questions about where the weapons are coming from, but is it strategically significant?  Only if insurgent groups have lots of these missiles and if they did that would be pretty obvious already (i.e. lots of downed helicopters).
  3. The most politically sensitive issue raised by the leak is also one of the least surprising.  Most observers of the war in Afghanistan will not be shocked to learn that Islamabad, or elements within the Pakistan military and/or intelligence services, have their own agenda in Afghanistan that is at odds with that of ISAF.   The problem is what do you do about it?  Cut off aid completely, invade Pakistan, wag your finger at Islamabad forcefully?  Even assuming everything in these files is correct, the reality is that the United States and its allies would still be seeking to engage Pakistan on the basis that a fitfully cooperative Pakistan is better than a totally non-cooperative one.  When it comes to Pakistan there are no good policy options, only less-worse ones.
  4. We have to be careful using the information in these reports in debates about what is happening in Afghanistan today. The information runs to about December of last year and may well have informed decisions taken by the Obama Administration to change strategy and increase resources in Afghanistan.  Some things will have changed (more troops, changes in tactics and less use of airpower and a consequent decrease in civilian casualties), some things won't have changed (corruption in the Afghan government, use of unmanned aerial vehicles), and some things may have partly changed (some improvement in Pakistan's cooperation).
  5. What these leaked files may do, however, is reinforce negative public perceptions of the war.  In that sense, while they are less significant in terms of what they tell us about current coalition strategy in Afghanistan, they could have a big impact on how much time that strategy has left to demonstrate some successes.

Photo by Flickr user BWJones, used under a Creative Commons licence. 

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