Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Sunday, July 25, 2010

  The New Pentagon Papers

The nearly 92,000 secret documents from 6 years of US military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, obtained by Wikileaks and published simultaneously today by the New York Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel, bring to mind nothing so much as the Pentagon Papers published in 1971. They’re a very different kind of dossier, of course. The latter was an official Defense Dept. study of US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The current dossier is more random – and thus in many ways more enlightening - a trove of on-the-ground reports from military and intelligence operations.

But what it shares in common with the Pentagon Papers is this: It provides a devastating portrait of

  • a disastrous guerilla war that the public had already turned decisively against

  • military operations that both tactically and strategically are a mess beyond any reasonable hope of repair

  • intelligence operations that are acquiring almost no accurate, much less actionable, information about anything

  • American officials who appear to have no answers to the daily intractable problems they face in an increasingly unpopular occupation

  • an Afghan population that has huge and legitimate grievances against heavy-handed US attacks

  • an Afghan government that is corrupt, incompetent, and mistrusted in more ways than most of us could have imagined

  • grossly untrustworthy Afghan army and police forces

  • obscenely fraught relations with our untrustworthy “allies” in the region

  • an enemy that is better armed and more adaptable and successful than the public has been told

  • the history of a war that went to pieces far earlier than the US government had told the public

  • specific details about military operations that contradict what the US public had been told in the past

In short, just as with the Pentagon Papers, it is nearly impossible to read through the current dossier and conclude that this occupation is winnable; that the US military ever has had a coherent plan; that the government that American lives are being sacrificed for is solid, trustworthy, or has integrity; that our forces really know what is going on in the country they’re bogged down in; or that the US government has been honest about what we face there.

So the publication of these documents could prove to be a turning point in US involvement in Afghanistan. The Pentagon Papers proved to Americans, even to people who hadn’t been paying close attention to policy debates about the Vietnam War, that they’d been deceived for years by their own government’s grossly misleading public assessments of the situation there. The publication of these New Pentagon Papers ought to produce the same result.

The difference between 2010 and 1971, however, is that in an earlier day Americans in large numbers were prepared to sit down and read and discuss the secret documents. Today, I’m not so sure they’ll even bother. After all, virtually none of these documents fall below the 140-character threshold that appears to constitute the limit to attention spans in the US these days.

In addition, almost the entire Republican caucus in Washington is devoted to the idea that the single policy of Barack Obama’s that they can support is his decision (twice) to escalate the war in Afghanistan. It’s hard to imagine the opposition party allowing these unwelcome new facts to influence in any way their proud advocacy for an open-ended war on the Asian continent. I rather doubt that many in Congress from the President’s own party will want to embarrass him about the depressing picture these documents portray.

Obama himself, the last time he doubled the troops in Afghanistan (in December 2009), emphatically denied that Afghanistan was like Vietnam.

First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history.

His administration certainly won’t be eager now to discuss whether Afghanistan is a quagmire. Even less will it want to allow public debate to be dominated by the apparent parallelism in the leaking of embarrassing documents that undercut the rationale for war. Not surprisingly, as soon as the world press reported on this dossier the White House released a statement denouncing the act of journalism as such rather than addressing the many concerns that readers of these documents would legitimately have.

I note in passing that on the main page of the White House website, under the heading ‘Issues’ you will find neither ‘Afghanistan’ nor ‘War’ (though ‘Rural’ and ‘Family’ both are somehow considered significant ‘Issues’).

So I guess we shall see whether the publication of the New Pentagon Papers has the effect that by rights it should have upon the course of this failed occupation.

free image hostingIn closing, I’d note the thing that struck me (as an historian) most forcefully about this trove of documents. I’ve already alluded to it. Nearly all the human intelligence gathered in the region by the US and evidently a good deal of the signal intelligence is highly fictionalized and therefore worthless - except as a reflection upon how grave our forces’ problems are there. Informants have many reasons to make things up, they’ve figured out what they can sell to us (some of this preposterous information is actually paid for), and US forces don’t have much reliable information to apply in testing the credibility of its sources. The task for Americans in Afghanistan is very much like trying to track a criminal suspect through a carnival hall of mirrors; something is going on, but who can say for sure what, where, when. This report from the Guardian is the best I’ve seen at highlighting that aspect of the documentary record:

Most of the reports are vague, filled with incongruent detail, or crudely fabricated. The same characters – famous Taliban commanders, well-known ISI officials – and scenarios repeatedly pop up. And few of the events predicted in the reports subsequently occurred.

A retired senior American officer said ground-level reports were considered to be a mixture of "rumours, bullshit and second-hand information" and were weeded out as they passed up the chain of command. "As someone who had to sift through thousands of these reports, I can say that the chances of finding any real information are pretty slim," said the officer, who has years of experience in the region.

If anything, the jumble of allegations highlights the perils of collecting accurate intelligence in a complex arena where all sides have an interest in distorting the truth.

"The fog of war is particularly dense in Afghanistan," said Michael Semple, a former deputy head of the EU mission there. "A barrage of false information is being passed off as intelligence and anyone who wants to operate there needs to be able to sift through it. The opportunities to be misled are innumerable."


Afghanistan has a long history of intelligence intrigues that stretches back to the early 19th century. Afghans have learned to use intelligence as a tool to influence the foreign powers occupying their land. In the past quarter century it has become a lucrative source of income in a country with few employment opportunities.

As many on-the-ground truths as can be found by digging through the New Pentagon Papers, there are at least an equal number of on-the-ground fabrications, falsifications, and frauds. Lies can be as revealing as truths, but only if you’re willing to look the lies square in the face.

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    By Anonymous Glendaajackson, at 12:36 AM  

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