On 25 July 2010, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian simultaneously released editorials on the war in Afghanistan, based on an archive* of around 92,000 leaked field reports, dating from January 2004 to December 2009, set up by WikiLeaks*. The partnership was created after The Guardian made a request to collaborate with WikiLeaks on the release of this archive, and the other two agencies were included as part of an agreement. These four partners worked for several weeks in a secret office at The Guardian’s headquarters before simultaneously releasing their editorials.
The “War Diary” is a publication of around 75,000 field reports out of a set of about 92,000 leaked field reports. Each report has several data fields for death tolls, location, date and time, type of event, and a text field for commentary ; reports are also “tagged” with labels used for categorizing the reports. About 15,000 documents were tagged by with a special label indicating that they contained data about informants, and were withheld for closer review and redaction by WikiLeaks.
25 July 2010 – The New York Times : These reports are used by desk officers in the Pentagon and troops in the field when they make operational plans and prepare briefings on the situation in the war zone. Most of the reports are routine, even mundane, but many add insights, texture and context to a war that has been waged for nearly nine years. […] Deciding whether to publish secret information is always difficult, and after weighing the risks and public interest, we sometimes chose not to publish. But there are times when the information is of significant public interest, and this is one of those times. – The New York Times
In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, Guardian editor David Leigh highlighted the toll on every day life of Afghan citizens as illustrated by the war logs.
27 July 2010 – Democracy Now! : The civilian casualties and the stories of them are the things that got to me most, actually. I had heard a lot about the air strikes. There’s been so much controversy about air strikes in which dozens or scores of civilians are alleged to have been killed, and then President Karzai has bitterly protested in public in the past about that. But what got to me and what I had not seen reported properly before was incident after incident, day after day, in which troopers in patrols or on convoys just shot drivers or motorcyclists or passersby, because they were frightened that they might be suicide bombers. And so, if they didn’t give way to a convoy or they got too close, they just blasted them with machine guns. And then, of course, it would turn out they weren’t bombers at all. They were sometimes just children. They were passengers in cars, that kind of thing. – David Leigh, Investigations Editor at The Guardian
Julian Assange, editor-in-chief and spokesman for WikiLeaks, appeared at The Frontline Club for a press conference on Monday the 26th :
26 July 2010 – Frontline Club : I’m often asked this question : “what is the single most astonishing event, the largest mass killing?” But that is not the real story of this material. The real story of this material is that it’s war ; it’s one damn thing after another. It is the continuous small events, the continuous death of children, insurgents, allied forces, maimed people. Search for the word “amputation” in this material, or “amputee” and there are dozens and dozens of references. So, this is the story of the war since 2004. Just like most of the accidents that occur on the road result from cars and not from buses, most of the deaths in this war are as the result of the everyday squalor of war and not the big incidences.
That said, of course there are reports with high kill counts in this material. For example one report from [September] 9th 2006 has an enemy kill count of 181, 1 wounded, 0 detained. What are the circumstance behind that report? Well [this event] is part of Operation Medusa, but the full circumstance is not yet known. According to the report, an AC 130 Gunship (this is a cargo plane which is fitted out with cannons all along one side) circles around for three hours and kills 62 of these people. We add up all the deaths in that report, we get about 80. The deaths of the other 100 are still unexplained. There are many reports like that. They look very suspicious, but the full details are not yet known.
We also can see the behavior of Task force 373, a Special Forces “kill or capture” squad, who pursue the Joint Priority Effect List (JPEL), an euphemism for the U.S. assassination list in Afghanistan. There are many events associated with them, one resulted in the death of seven children and others resulted in the deaths of a number of other innocents. You can also see how people get on the JPEL list ; they seemed “nominated” by regional governors in Afghanistan, or by intelligence authorities, often with, it appears, little evidence, and of course no additional judicial review. – Julian Assange
Der Spiegel’s cover story on the Afghan War Logs covered several key topics: an elite U.S. Task force with a kill or capture target list, German forces’ confrontation with increasing violence in north Afghanistan, the Pakistan Secret Service’s connection to the Taliban, and an alarming number of drone crashes in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Der Spiegel’s coverage is generally critical of the war in Afghanistan, and a few opinion pieces in the days following the release discuss the possibility of European nations withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and the consequences.
An article on Task Force 373, a group of elite U.S. forces that takes orders from Pentagon, describes their activities as detailed in the Afghan War Logs. Task Force 373 operates independently of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), and their Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL) is a classified “kill or capture” target list. The German government has also provided names for the JPEL. The Task Force’s existence was not a secret before the leak, but the details of their mission to assassinate top Taliban and terrorist leaders have not been made public.
The Afghan War Logs also show that officials were worried about keeping the Task Force’s mistakes from being known, even by U.S. partners in Afghanistan. One example is a June 17, 2007 report details how forces suspected “prominent al-Qaida functionary Abu Laith al-Libi” was in a school. “But after the impact of five American rockets, instead of finding al-Libi, the ground forces discovered six dead children in the rubble of the school. A further seriously injured child was also found but could not be saved.”
Another article describes the increase in insurgent attacks against the German Army, called the Bundeswehr, and other international forces starting around 2005 and 2006. Threat reports from the War Logs show how security in northern Afghanistan – where the Bundeswehr were deployed – deteriorated, and provides a much more detailed picture of the situation than previously provided by the German government. A threat report was written on May 31, 2007 by the Germans, shortly after three suicide bombings which killed three Bundeswehr soldiers and several Afghans. The report states that more attacks are “strongly expected,” and insurgents had abandoned tactics which avoided civilian casualties. Instead, insurgents paid no heed to civilian casualties and as a result, “The local media reported and agitated against ISAF and the United States in Kunduz for the first time.”
The unreliability of drones has increased the cost of the war in Afghanistan dramatically. Der Spiegel writes:
The unmanned assassin can fly for more than 20 hours and kill at lightning speed. But they are not always reliable. According to official reports, 38 Predator and Reaper drones have crashed while on combat missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, while a further nine have crashed during test flights on military bases in the US. Each crash costs the government between $3.7 million (€2.8 million) and $5 million.
The rush to get the drones out after 9/11 has caused a lot of key problems to be ignored. In 2010, President Obama had already ordered twice the number of drone missions ordered by Bush.
The Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s secret service, originally helped build up the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Afghan War Logs show that Pakistan is also a haven for Taliban forces:
According to the war logs, the ISI envoys are present when insurgent commanders hold war councils — and even give specific orders to carry out murders. These include orders to try to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai. For example, a threat report dated August 21, 2008 warned: “Colonel Mohammad Yusuf from the ISI had directed Taliban official Maulawi Izzatullah to see that Karzai was assassinated.” – Der Spiegel
Former Pakistan intelligence chief General Hamid Gul seems to have been a particularly important link between the Taliban and ISI: a report from Jan. 14, 2008 says that he “coordinated and planned” a kidnapping incident of UN employees. Other reports say he ordered suicide attacks. General Gul has vehemently denied “every single word” in the U.S. Documents. The reports express uncertainty of the situation, as much evidence of links between the ISI and the Taliban come from unreliable sources.
The Guardian covered a wide variety of topics on the Afghan War Logs, featuring interactivemaps of IED explosions and other key incidents over the four year period. Articles contain direct links to logs which the The Guardian has posted on its site. The topics covered in Der Spiegel were also mentioned in some of The Guardian articles, but The Guardian put more emphasis on reports of Iranian involvement in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s surface-to-air missile capability, and friendly fire incidents.
According to The Guardian, 180 reports from the Afghan War Diaries mention the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) involvement in aiding the insurgency in Afghanistan. But The Guardian is much more skeptical than Der Spiegel of the files’ contents, saying that they “yield little convincing evidence behind Afghan accusations that the ISI is the hidden hand behind the Taliban.” Many of the “accusations” in the War Logs come from unverified or dubious sources, although an unnamed U.S. Officer is quoted as saying the “allegations chime with other US reporting, collected by other agencies and at a higher classification, that pointed to ISI complicity with the Taliban.”
Another article covers details of Iranian involvement in aiding the Taliban and warlords associated with al-Qaida in Afghanistan. It is unclear from the War Logs whether the government of Iran is involved, if the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is solely responsible, or if other criminal gangs and Taliban sympathizers are involved. The reports cannot be corroborated, so it is also unclear how accurate the information is. The Iranian government denies any accusations of involvement of sending aid to militants in Afghanistan.
One example comes from a January 2005 report that “Iranian intelligence has delivered 10 million Afghanis ($212,000) to a location on Iran’s border.” The report gave details on how the money was transferred in a “1990s model white Toyota Corolla” and the members of an al-Qaida militia who were inside the car. Another report from 2006 writes:
In Birjand, Iran, there is an important base where Iranian officials train Taliban and HIG members. From that location they use [sic] to send to Afghanistan explosive devices and vehicles ready to be used as SVBIEDs [suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices].
Comparing the Afghan Log reports to official statements around the same time, The Guardian observes that U.S. military covered up the fact that the Taliban had surface-to-air missile capability. In one incident, a Chinook helicopter was shot down in May 2007, killing seven people. U.S. and NATO officials claimed that the helicopter had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), “effectively, a lucky hit.” But reports from pilot logs say witnesses thought that the weapon was probably a Manpad – a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile. Other reports from as early as 2005 and 2006 give evidence that the Taliban were using surface-to-air missiles. Some reports speculated that the Manpads were supplied from Iran or Pakistan:
As fighting intensified in April 2007 one unidentified source told an American officer that seven Manpads purchased by Iran from Algeria had been “clandestinely transported from Mashhad in Iran across the border into Afghanistan”. Other reports, also unconfirmed, accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence of supplying weapons or missile-trainers to the Taliban.
The Afghan War Logs describe 21 different incidents where British troops have attacked Afghan civilians. “The logs identify at least 26 people killed and another 20 wounded as a result.”
One group of four shootings, all within a month around October 2007 involved UK squads in Kabul. In each incident, civilians were somehow wounded or killed. There were also four instances where UK bombings caused civilian deaths.
The New York Times
The main article on the Afghan War Logs covers a wide range of topics, similar to those in Der Spiegel’s cover story. These include Task Force 373, drone failures, anti-aircraft missiles, and CIA-expanded paramilitary operations in Afghanistan. And like The Guardian, The New York Times site has posted several of the leaked documents on its site, linking to them in their main articles.
The article quotes statements from the White House in reaction to the leak, “vigorously den[ying] that the Obama administration had presented a misleading portrait of the war in Afghanistan.” But it is subsequently pointed out that the U.S. Government had implied that the Taliban did not have heat-seeking missiles, though several of the documents provide evidence to the contrary.
Some of the topics in The New York Times article which are not in Der Spiegel or The Guardian’s main coverage include trickery of Afghan insurgents, cruelty and ineffectiveness of the Afghan police, and lack of supplies for the Afghan police and American troops. Such topics were not unknown prior to the leak, and the War Logs add detail from the point of view of U.S. Military on the ground in Afghanistan. The language used in The New York Times is also notably different from that of Der Spiegel or The Guardian.
The documents show how the best intentions of Americans to help rebuild Afghanistan through provincial reconstruction teams ran up against a bewildering array of problems — from corruption to cultural misunderstandings — as they tried to win over the public by helping repair dams and bridges, build schools and train local authorities.
While writing of the large number of civilian casualties that the War Diaries have revealed, the article notes:
Strict new rules of engagement, imposed in 2009, minimized the use of airstrikes after some had killed civilians and turned Afghans against the war. But the rules also prompted anger from American troops and their families. The troops felt that their lives were not sufficiently valued because they had to justify every request for air or artillery support, making it easier for the Taliban to fight.
Another article published on July 26, 2010 describes the field reports from Combat Outpost Keating, established in 2006 in Nuristan Province in northeastern Afghanistan.
The outpost was small, isolated and exposed to high ground, one compound in a network of tiny firebases the American and Afghan governments built far from Afghanistan’s cities. The area, near the border with Pakistan, was suspected of being an insurgent corridor.
The troops stationed at the outpost were tasked with stopping the insurgent activity and befriending the locals. Although they met limited success with the locals at first, eventually the outpost was cut off from contact with anyone outside their base. The article reports that the insurgents brutally murdered or mutilated Afghans who cooperated with U.S. Forces. The insurgents’ power and control over the area soon left the outpost to stagnate with respect to its allotted goals.
In 2009, when the Obama administration reevaluated its strategy in rural areas, the outpost was shut down in order to concentrate military power in more effective areas. In October 2009, before Combat Outpost Keating could close, the insurgents attacked with at least 175 gunmen. The U.S. Troops were clearly overwhelmed and requested air support. The battle went on for nine hours and left eight U.S. Soldiers dead, with dozens wounded, along with other Afghan casualties. The author claims that Combat Outpost Keating is a reflection of the wider war throughout Afghanistan.
Effecting research and the historical record
Although a few organizations have reported on civilian casualties in Afghanistan during the war, the Afghan War Logs leak put raw data on the war in the public sphere for the first time. The data set is a trove of information for researchers and others who want to assess the extent of success or failure of a war that is heavily financed by the public.
On 11 March, 2011 Science published an article and data sets that cover civilian deaths during the war in Afghanistan. Science remarks that Afghan casualties much harder to tally than in Iraq; Afghanistan much more rural, and journalist access is low. These environmental factors also make researchers skeptical of the data found in the Afghan War Logs because there isn’t any way to corroborate death tallies. However, after the July release of the Afghan War Logs, Science discovered that the ISAF had another database of civilian casualties called CIVCAS. After months of negotiating, the ISAF gave the database to Science in January for publication.
It is the military’s internal record of the death and injury of Afghan civilians, broken down by month, region, weaponry, and perpetrator. By its reckoning, 2537 civilians were killed and 5594 were wounded over the past 2 years, with 12% of those casualties attributed to ISAF forces and the rest to insurgents. The death toll is 93% identical to that in the WikiLeaks data, revealing those raw field observations to be far more reliable than researchers had suspected.
Subsequently, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) released their own civilian casualty data to Science. These databases reported twice the number of civilians killed over the same time period as the ISAF data.
ISAF officials acknowledge the gap. ‘The civilian casualties reported by the UN have always been higher than those reported by ISAF,’ says U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the director of communications for NATO based in Kabul. ‘But the trends have been very consistent.’
Thomas Ruttig, an author and independent analyst for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, wrote on the impact of the Afghan War Logs release:
Researchers need to be grateful to Wikileaks. It provides raw material that is rare to find in such volume, in a situation where in Afghanistan (but not only there) the provision of accurate information has been replaced by ‘strategic communications’. Who of us has not read the often unreadable stuff doled out by NATO, the UN or governments (including the Afghan) or experienced on-the-record briefings followed by diametrically different off-the-records renderings? The crisis of the Afghan ‘mission‘, the negative trends in all of its sectors – from security to development – has made fewer and fewer officials ready to accept political responsibility by simply telling the truth on how difficult and complex things are and that indeed fundamental mistakes have been made which have now tangled up in a Gordian knot. Information literally has to be wrought out of officials’ mouths and access to it has been limited more and more.
Human Rights Groups
Immediately following the release of the Afghan War Logs, WikiLeaks was criticized for not redacting the 75,000 documents that it chose to release (although they did withhold about 15,000 documents to be redacted carefully). In August, several human rights groups asked WikiLeaks in an email to redact the field reports it had published. The groups were Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, Amnesty International-Afghanistan, the Open Society Institute, the International Crisis Group and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Group. Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, was quoted as saying,
It is unfortunate that it has become human rights organizations against WikiLeaks. That wasn’t our intent,” Holewinski said. “Our intent was to say, ‘We’ve been there. We know Afghanistan. We know Taliban is targeting people. Let’s all be cautious about public names.’
Thomas Ruttig also wrote an article on the issue, criticizing WikiLeaks’ unofficial responses to the demand from the human rights groups, but also urging the public not to be distracted from the more important issues at stake: “the crisis of the international involvement in Afghanistan.”
On July 27, 2010 a video interview of Sam Zarifi, Asia Pacific Specialist of Amnesty International was posted. Zafiri spoke about the Afghan War Logs and their importance.
The key thing that emerges from Amnesty’s point of view is that there was never a coherent strategy that put as a priority the well-being of the Afghan people. And this clearly comes out in terms of the treatment of civilian casualties, where it’s clear that NATO didn’t really know what was happening across the country, and certainly wasn’t trying to minimize civilian casualties, although that is their legal obligation.
Michael Lyons, who was a medic in the Royal Navy since 2005, became a conscientious objector and refused to serve in Afghanistan after seeing WikiLeaks documents. Lyons refused assault rifle training on 20 September, 2010, a few months after the release of the Afghan War Logs. In July 2011 he was found guilty of willful disobedience and sentenced to seven months detention. Lyons was not allowed to speak publicly about his case, but his wife wrote an article for The Guardian, saying that she felt her husband was sentenced because of his lack of religious belief. Lyons was also demoted and dismissed from the Navy.
On September 18, 2010, a rally in Quantico, Virginia in support of Bradley Manning was attended by several Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Jacob George, an Afghanistan war veteran, called Bradley Manning a hero. He said, “I think whistle blowing is the only way to challenge the narrative of war that we have right now. The media and our government…doesn’t allow transparency and cultivating transparency is the thing that [the WikiLeaks source] did. It is a heroic act.”
In response to the accusations that the Afghan War Logs documents have put soldiers’ lives at risk, the veterans say that sending the soldiers to war is what has put them at risk. Former soldier Josh Stieber points to a broader view of the war which does not coincide with the “official narrative.” He emphasizes the importance of public knowledge of the whole situation so that they can make informed decisions in the future.
Matt Southworth, another former soldier who attended the rally, said “I really hope [we] spend more time thinking about the content of the documents rather than how whomever leaked them should be punished…We have orders as soldiers to disobey unlawful orders. And [in these wars] it’s Standard Operating Procedure to do things that are against the Geneva Conventions.”
* Links are to mirrors of the WikiLeaks site. The original site is at http://wikileaks.ch/ and the original diary dig is at http://126.96.36.199/iraq/diarydig/