The 90,000 secret US military documents released this week by Wikileaks have been hailed as the next Pentagon Papers, the damning classified history of the Vietnam War, and dismissed as "nothing new."
Critics of the leak condemned Wikileaks for endangering the lives of Afghan informants; critics of the war praised the organisation for, they hope, hastening the end of the nearly nine-year-old conflict. Many of the revelations contained in the documents are indeed not "new," per se. Few people will be shocked to learn that the Afghan army and police are ineffective, or that corruption undermines the legitimacy of the central government.
"Not new" does not mean "not important," though. "However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan," John Kerry, the chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee, said in a statement shortly after the documents were released. Public support for the war is slipping in the United States and Europe, where there is a growing sense that US president Barack Obama's modified strategy cannot solve many of the war's intractable problems. And the Wikileaks documents offer critics hundreds of data points to support that narrative, particularly along a few key themes.
The police and army are ill-disciplined. The media often report on the rare instances of Afghan soldiers and police attacking Nato units. Far less is said about so-called green-on-green incidents, when the Afghan security services open fire on each other. But there are at least six dozen such shootings in the Wikileaks documents. In one report, a group of border guards get high on opium and then start shooting at each other. In another, two Afghan policemen "were conducting horseplay with their service arms" and accidentally shot the local intelligence director.
Corruption in the security services, meanwhile, is so widespread that it often merits only a passing mention in the leaked documents. "The last item of discussion was the on-going corruption within the ANP" is the matter-of-fact conclusion to one report of a police working-group meeting from December 2006. It offered no suggestions on reducing that corruption. Despite years of training and billions of dollars, Afghanistan's security services are still viewed as poorly trained and corrupt. A report released last month by the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction accused the military of overestimating the readiness of Afghan army and police units.
The "green-on-green" reports - coupled with hundreds of other accounts of ineptitude and graft - underscore just how far those units are from taking control of Afghan security by 2014, as Afghan president Hamid Karzai promised earlier this month. Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar province, held a counternarcotics meeting in his office in October of 2007, according to one Wikileaks report. He proposed a large eradication programme, with air and ground teams spraying poppy fields throughout the province.
Karzai has long been ambivalent about such programmes. Sherzai didn't care. "Karzai is weak," Sherzai reportedly said. "I will do in Nangarhar what I have to do." Many other reports about Karzai - at least from outside the capital - portray the president as similarly weak and ineffective. Governors and local officials complain that they've had trouble arranging meetings with Karzai. Provincial officials complain at an October 2007 meeting that Karzai is ignoring non-Pashtun communities. The chief of police in Paktia calls Karzai "an American puppet" in a September 2007 meeting. International donors pledged at the Kabul conference earlier this month to funnel more aid through the central government in Kabul. But Karzai has taken few concrete steps to build capacity and trust in a government that's often viewed in the provinces with suspicion or outright hostility.
When Karzai does get involved, his efforts sometimes serve to undermine Nato's efforts. Kapisa province, in eastern Afghanistan, was relatively quiet in early 2007, following a major US-led offensive. Then, early in 2007, Karzai apparently issued an order barring coalition forces from the province. Security had deteriorated markedly by mid-2007, and by June of that year the local police were "openly scared of the Taliban," the local provincial reconstruction team wrote in a report. "The Taliban presence in the Tagab Valley is halting all development in the valley," the report said. "Allowing no coalition forces into the Tagab Valley creates a safe haven and a staging area for attacks."
Another account from Kapisa, from roughly the same period, recounts the firing of provincial governor Abdul Satter Murad. He was allegedly sacked by Karzai because of some comments he made in a Newsweek interview that were critical of the president. "This unexpected change in provincial leadership will leave a significant vacuum in Kapisa," the regional PRT wrote.
The notion of the "ten-dollar-a-day Taliban" is reductive, discounting the role of religious or nationalistic motives among insurgents. But money does matter. In February 2008, for example, a Taliban commander offered an Afghan army officer $100,000 to quit the army, an amount exponentially higher than the officer could ever hope to earn - even after years of work. (The Taliban commander coupled his offer with a thinly-veiled threat against the commander's family.) The Afghan army and police have increased their salaries in recent years, but Afghan men can still sometimes earn more working for the Taliban, and that economic incentives continues to draw fighters to the insurgency.
Gross income isn't the only issue, either; soldiers and police, particularly in rural regions, often don't receive their salaries on time. Local officials in Panjshir complained to Nato in January 2008 that the late payment of salaries was "undermining the rule of law" in the province. Economic incentives cut both ways, though. In February 2007, an informant gave ISAF a tip about a planned car bomb attack on Bagram air base. "The source claims to be a cook for Mullah Omar who is upset because he has not been paid recently," the report noted.
Losing the east. Nato has focused largely on securing southern Afghanistan over the last eight months. Less attention has been paid to the east, which has seen a precipitous decline in security over the last few years. The region received comparatively little attention from 2004 through 2006. Many of the reports from provinces like Paktia, Nuristan and Khost are focused on new development projects - new schools, health clinics, roads.
In 2007, violence starts to routinely creep into PRT reports from the east. Two doctors are kidnapped in Nuristan; a suicide bomber attacks the police headquarters in Logar; an IED damages a bridge in Paktia. By mid-year, the violence is clearly a trend. Insurgents blow up a boys' school in Panjshir province, and the local PRT notes that the attack is "eerily similar" to a similar attack six months earlier.
The Wikileaks documents are somewhat dated - they contain nothing from 2010 - but security in the east has deteriorated even more rapidly in recent months. Attacks in Khost are up more than threefold in 2010, compared to 2007; in Kunar, violence has spiked by nearly 400 percent, according to the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, a security organisation. None of these trends are surprising, particularly to longtime observers of the war in Afghanistan. But many of the details revealed in the Wikileaks documents are new, and they have the potential to impact the public debate over Obama's war strategy, particularly as the administration gears up for its December strategy review.
* The National