Digging Deeper into Wikileaks Afghan Files

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Asia Times

Digging Deeper into Wikileaks Afghan Files

In July, the whistle-blower organization Wikileaks made a six-year archive of tens of thousands of classified military documents, dealing with the United States war in Afghanistan, available on the Internet.

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They also gave advance access to a select few publications, including the New York Times and the British Guardian. In its initial coverage, the Times led with allegations contained in the documents that America's ally, Pakistan, allowed members of its spy service to meet and conspire with members of the Taliban.

The Guardian, instead, primarily focused on the unreported killings of Afghan civilians, beginning its lead article by declaring: "A huge cache of secret US military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents."

In the first days after the story broke, Wikileaks' website was nearly impossible to navigate, as web-users flocked to take a look at the documents. The Internet was then abuzz with talk of crowd-sourced analysis and yet, weeks later, in-depth investigations of other key contents of the archive that were initially ignored have been few and far between - with most media outlets and bloggers seemingly content to wait for Wikileaks to unveil a second batch of Afghan war documents - roughly 15,000 in all - in the days or weeks ahead.

Much, however, remains to be learned from the first cache of files that comprise Wikileaks' "Afghan War Diary" - from the fact that Pakistani military personnel apparently were present at a forward operating base in Afghanistan during an incident of cultural insensitivity that a US officer called "regrettable", to the effects of the war on ordinary Afghans, and to the mindset of US officers leading America's troops in the war-ravaged country. What follows are just four examples of the type of material that await those willing to wade deeper into the files on Wikileaks' website.

'Death to Obama'

Even a cursory examination of the Wikileaks files reveals the existence of a vibrant and vocal Afghan protest movement - above and beyond recent protests against actual and proposed Koran-burning in the United States - typified by street demonstrations against various strata of the Afghan government as well as the United States and its coalition allies.

For example, on December 4, 2009, US troops at Combat Outpost (COP) Michigan, in the center of the Pech River Valley and near the mouth of the Korengal Valley, fired an anti-tank missile, known as a TOW, at five Afghans who were spotted in what had been a past enemy fighting position.

The documents refer to the men as both LNs, or local nationals, and AAFs (anti-Afghan forces) and mention weapons being spotted, but not hostile actions, or even intent, being evidenced. Soon after the strike, an Afghan man wounded by the missile was brought to the COP for treatment, but died. Then the corpse of another victim of the strike was brought to the outpost.

Later that day, 100 Afghan locals massed and were "blocking the road by [the] Kandigal Bazzar" using a boulder, concertina wire and fires as their barricade. A spot report noted, "Protesters are organized and are moving toward COP Michigan. Crowd has grown larger and now has a Taliban flag."

As the "LNs" converged on the outpost, US-allied Afghan troops ineffectually fired warning shots to disperse the crowd. US troops manning the COP's guard towers then stood down as local elders were called in to help diffuse the situation.

Meanwhile, according to US Army documents, 100 "LNs [we]re chanting ‘Death to America' ‘Death to Obama'." Afghan troops would later inform the US that the protest actually concerned two Afghan children from Ahmar Village in Konar province who were killed a day earlier by long-range fire. The US disputed the claim, alleging no children had been slain and instead chalking it up to Taliban propaganda.

The December 2009 "Death to Obama" incident is, however, only one of hundreds of Afghan protests, demonstrations and riots mentioned in the Wikileaks document dump. A glance at just some of the other protests that same month - the most recent in the Wikileaks files - gives an indication of both popular Afghan discontent and a willingness to take to the streets to demand action.

On December 8, for example, Afghans who were, according to US documents, "protesting the fact that the representative they voted for to represent them in Kabul was not allowed to go, but someone else was picked to represent them that they did not vote for", blocked road traffic to air their grievances.

On December 10, 400 to 500 Afghans in Kabul assembled to protest in the name of peace and in support of war victims as well as against the "infringement of human rights in Afghanistan", say US documents. Peaceful protests by civilians in Nanghahar province, who believed their votes in a provincial council election were not counted, also took place on December 21.

On December 23 near COP Zormat in Paktia province, local Afghans staged a protest against a recent coalition forces' military operation in the area. On December 27, according to a US report, a crowd of 400 converged on the governor's compound in Nanghahar province shouting "death to the governor".

The protesters - whom the Americans classified as "cranky" but "non-violent" - were allegedly upset that their "votes weren't counted" in provincial elections. Later, US reports recast the demonstration as "about street vendors being outlawed and them wanting either new jobs or street vending legalized". While on December 30, Afghan civilians gathered in Jalalabad City to protest the alleged killings of civilians, in Konar province, by coalition forces.

'Smoking hash'

While rampant opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has regularly made headlines over the course of the US occupation, coverage of drug use by Afghans has been largely confined to articles about the staggering scope of the drug problem. (It has, in fact, been estimated that there are approximately one million Afghans addicted to opium, heroin and other drugs.)

Wikileaks' documents, however, offer a more intimate view of war-weary Afghans' efforts at self-medication, just who is involved with drugs and US attitudes toward drug use by locals.

A December 2009 document, for example, notes that previous searches of the quarters of Afghan forces based at Forward Operating Base Costell had "turned up drugs". Nor was this an isolated incident. "During the inspection of the old district center the PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] wandered into a room full of ANP [Afghan National Police] smoking hash," reads one December 2006 document.

It continues: "ANP uniforms were found around the compound thrown into trash heaps or stashed in containers. The police stated that wearing a uniform was a death sentence."

When a US combat patrol entered Bashikheyl village in October 2007, "the patrol leader noticed several (5 or 6) hypodermic needles scattered around on the ground." An analyst comment inserted in the documents reads:

It is likely that these needles were used to shoot heroine [sic]. Generally poor villagers smoke hashish or smoke opium-laced cigarettes. The fact that these were probably used for heroine [sic] may suggest ACM [anti-coalition militia] presence as the locals do not have the money to buy it.

Another unrelated report noted that a local official was "usually high on drugs and does not work well with the community".

'They don't have the balls to fight ... they hide like women'

Documents released by Wikileaks also outline the ways in which the US military attempts to influence foreign civilians through propaganda, misinformation, and tough talk that can descend into adolescent name-calling, macho boasts and outright misogyny. 

When US troops endeavored to aid allied Afghan forces in the "seizure and occupation" of the town of Musa Qaleh, they came up with a series of propaganda "talking points" that offer a window onto US methods of suasion and influence.

The list begins by stating that US troops have arrived at the behest of the Afghan government and then offers a highly dubious assessment of that government as "strong and ... committed to governance, reconstruction, and the well being of all Afghans". Equally questionable is a later assertion that the Afghan security forces "are well-trained and are here to protect your rights and enforce the laws of Afghanistan".

Yet another talking point seemingly seeks to diminish the importance of the US military's iron-clad obligations under international law to respect the lives and welfare of civilians, and to abdicate, partially at least, its responsibility for protecting non-combatants, while admitting to the frequent killing of civilians.

It reads, "[t]he Taliban insurgents are cowards and hide behind innocent Afghans to attack ANSF and ISAF Forces. Countless of [sic] innocent fellow Afghans are killed each week by these senseless acts of violence."

Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom, a young army officer, was even more blunt when addressing Afghan elders at a shura at Bella Outpost in Nuristan province, according to US documents. "I ... told them that they need to get the AAF out of their village ... They need to give the Taliban the option of leaving their village, tuning themselves in, or go fight the CF [coalition forces] like a man and die," wrote Brostrum, who was killed in a Taliban attack on another outpost a few months later.

The elders said they would like to help the Coalition Forces, but that the guerrillas were too numerous and the village had no weapons to counter a large armed force. Despite their powerlessness, Brostrom insisted the locals risk their lives and those of their families for his men and mission.

He also, despite the fact that his commander and chief had touted ensuring women's rights as a key feature of the US occupation, lapsed into sexist braggadocio to make his point. "I told them that the AAF are taking advantage of their hospitality and are cowards for hiding in their village and that they are weak and dont [sic] have the balls to fight the Coalition Forces in the open, they hide like women."

'They ... were making obscene gestures'

Having put an increasing emphasis on counter-insurgency over the past several years, the US military has supposedly invested a great deal in demonstrating greater cultural sensitivity toward Afghans. Documents from December 2009 suggest, however, that much is still lacking in their efforts. During the middle of the month, a female US Air Force dog handler conducted a search of a mosque at a joint US-Afghan forward operating base.

"Following the search, the ABP [Afghan Border Police], ASG [Afghan Security Guards] and Afghan interpreters became very angry that a female dog team had entered the mosque," say US documents outlining the incident. With his allies up in arms, the US commander was forced to engage in immediate damage control, meeting with not only representatives of the Afghan security forces but also, according to the documents, members of the Pakistani military at the base, to offer apologies, while also purchasing "a cow to sacrifice in order to purify the mosque".

At the same time, other US personnel began taking steps to limit the fallout if news of the incident spread outside the base to local villages. The air force dog handler was, apparently, reassigned and swiftly sent away from the base, while all US personnel were ordered to be retrained in regard to "respect and dignity for the local populace, local their customs and beliefs, and acceptable actions involving [sic] in and around a mosque."

Allied Afghan troops are not alone in their anger at US actions. One leader at a shura, according to US documents, "stated that after every coalition operation, the results have been negativea'. He went on to mention that "people have been hurt by this". Others spoke up too. An excerpt from a US Army summary of the goings-on at the gathering reads:

The shura leaders stated that the expenses of the operation could have been better spent on the people. The shura leader stated that over the last three months of operations, there have been no accomplishments. When asked about the INS [insurgent] presence he stated there are only 6 TB, [Taliban, but] 100 thieves, 100 killers, and 100 drug users in the valley. The animosity and fighting in Tagab has been ongoing for 35 years and people are leaving the valley because of the fighting.

United States documents also note that the local population living near Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province regularly shoot at coalition aircraft as did one civilian, on July 25, 2009, "who was upset at aircraft conducting multiple turns and flying low over his residence".

He wasn't the first (nor no doubt, will he be the last) to express anger at foreigners in the skies of his homeland. For example, a pilot's debriefing report following another flyover, reads, "White and black flags were observed on LN house rooftops. Over 20 households were observed with the flags and local populace seemed to be angry at our pressence [sic]. They tried throwing rocks and were making obscene gestures."

What's left at Wikileaks?

In addition to insights into Afghan activism and drug use, American military methods, propaganda and cultural faux pas as well as the Afghan response to them, there's much more to be learned from the Wikileaks Afghan War Diary.

While the Guardian did an admirable job in focusing on civilian casualties catalogued in the files, there is still a great deal of material in the document dump about the everyday suffering of ordinary Afghans and the day-in-day-out hardship of living under foreign occupation - subjects that have been much neglected despite almost a decade of news coverage of the American war in Afghanistan.

With any luck, to whichever publications Wikileaks chooses to release its next 15,000 documents on the Afghan War, they will dig a little deeper and mine the files for material on the everyday effects of the war on those who disproportionately bear the brunt of it - Afghan civilians. This is the real secret story of the war that, even at this late date, has yet to be investigated in any exhaustive or comprehensive sense.

Nick Turse

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. He is the author/editor of several other books, including The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyber Warfare, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (with Tom Engelhardt), The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives and The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. His website is Nick Turse.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, or Facebook.

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