Taliban insurgents appear to have used portable heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles to shoot down US helicopters that were supplied to Afghan mujaheddin by the US in the 1980s to help drive out the Soviet Union, according to documents released by the organisation Wikileaks. Thousands of classified documents related to the Afghan war, released without authorisation by Wikileaks reveal in often excruciating detail the struggles faced by U.S. troops as they battle an increasingly potent Taliban force and also try to work with Pakistani allies who often appear to be helping the Taliban.
The more than 92,000 classified documents. most of which consist of low-level field reports, represent one of the largest single disclosures of such information in US history. Wikileaks gave the documents to the New York Times, the British newspaper The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel several weeks ago on the condition that they not be published prior to Sunday night, when the group released them publicly.
The huge trove of documents covers the period from January 2004 through to December 2009. when the Obama administration began to push more than 30,000 troops into Afghanistan and announced a new strategy. The documents provide new insights into a period in which the Taliban was gaining strength, Afghan civilians were growing increasingly disillusioned with their government, and US troops in the field often expressed frustration at having to fight a war without sufficient resources.
One report from the spring of 2007 refers to witnesses who saw what appeared to be a heat-seeking missile destroy a CH-47 transport helicopter. The New York Times first unearthed the document in its review of the files. The Chinook crash killed five Americans, a British citizen and a Canadian. Even though the initial US report stated that the helicopter was "engaged and struck with a missile", a Nato spokesman suggested that small arms fire was responsible for bringing down the helicopter.
Although the use of such weapons by the Taliban appears to be very limited, the disclosure that relatively low-tech insurgents had acquired such arms would have fostered the impression that the Afghan war effort was faltering at a time when US fatalities in Iraq were at record levels and the Bush administration was struggling to maintain support for the Iraq war even among its Republican base. The Obama has administration blasted Wikileaks for disclosing the classified documents. "Wikileaks made no effort to contact us about these documents," the national security adviser, James Jones, said in a statement. "The United States government learned from news organisations that these documents would be posted."
The Obama administration has not formally decided whether to take legal action against Wikileaks, but will probably review the documents this week before reaching any conclusions. Senior administration officials said they had been anxiously awaiting release of the documents ever since news organisations began calling to inquire about them last week. "There is not a lot new here for those who have been following developments closely," one US official said.
Many of the documents posted by Wikileaks suggest that Pakistan's spy service may be helping Afghan insurgents plan and carry out attacks on US forces in Afghanistan and their Afghan government allies. A few of the reports also describe cooperation between Pakistani intelligence and fighters aligned with al Qa'eda. US intelligence concluded a number of years ago that Pakistan retained its ties with Taliban groups, and has collected voluminous intercept and human reports documenting regular contacts between them, intelligence officials said. Late last year, President Barack Obama warned in a letter to the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, that the United States would no longer put up with the contacts.
But the documents appear to suggest that Pakistan's spy agency may actually have assisted insurgents in planning some attacks, at least in the past. The Pakistani government denied the allegations in the classified intelligence documents. "These reports reflect nothing more than single-source comments and rumors, which abound on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and are often proved wrong after deeper examination," said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States.
The documents detail multiple reports of cooperation between retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, who ran Pakistan's spy agency in the late 1980s, and Afghan insurgents battling US forces in the mountainous eastern region of the country. In the latter years of the anti-Soviet insurgency, General Gul worked closely with several mujaheddin fighters who are currently battling US troops and trying to topple the Afghan government. The documents also include reports that General Gul was trying to reestablish contacts with insurgent leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose fighters have been responsible for some of the bloodiest attacks on US forces.
Over the past decade, US intelligence has collected voluminous evidence of direct contacts between Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and Jalaluddin Haqqani, Hekmatyar and the Taliban leader Mohammed Omar. That evidence includes both human intelligence and intercepted communications. As the new Afghan war strategy was being formulated late last year, Mr Obama stepped up private pressure on the Pakistanis to sever ties with the Taliban, suggesting that if there was no improvement, the United States would begin to take matters into its own hands. "The key thing to bear in mind is that the administration is not naive about Pakistan," an Obama administration official said. "The problem with the Pakistanis is that the more you threaten them, the more they become entrenched and don't see a path forward with you."
Most of the voluminous store of classified reports reflects the daily grind of life in Afghanistan as covered in news reports for the past few years. In them, junior officers complain about poorly equipped Afghan forces, corrupt Afghan government officials and a US war effort that at times seemed to be seriously wanting for resources. The reports highlight how civilian casualties resulting from mistakes on the battlefield have alienated Afghans. Over the past year, civilian casualties in Afghanistan have dropped significantly. But many of the problems referred to in the memo ? a resilient Taliban, porous borders with Pakistani safe havens and largely ineffectual Afghan government ? remain. * AP