Washington uses inaccurate WikiLeaks Intel to whip Pakistan military and ISI and deflect attention from its own failures and excesses

WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, an Australian journalist and a computer hacker, has begun to draw intense fire over his leaks of Intel files related to Afghan war from the Amnesty International, Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), Obama administration and the US military. Julian is pledging to continue with his crusade against censorship.

Human Rights groups are furious that by making US military files public without removing the names of Afghan informants, Assange has exposed them to reprisal by the Taliban. In a letter to Assange, the rights groups said: “We have seen the negative, sometimes deadly ramifications for those Afghans identified as working for or sympathizing with international forces”. “We fear the names could create new targets,” AIHRC president Nader Nadery said. The Taliban have vowed to search the published documents and punish those who have helped US and NATO forces. This comes in the wake of a sharp rise of assassinations of tribal and religious leaders by the Taliban.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (Andrew Winning/Reuters)

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (Andrew Winning/Reuters)

According to a report on the Daily Beast website, the Obama administration has asked its allies – Britain, Germany and Australia among others – to consider bringing criminal charges against Assange and limit his travels across international borders. He might be arrested and charged with espionage if he visits the US. Although this reflects a growing concern among administration circles that WikiLeaks threatens the national security of the US, Obama administration seems intriguingly helpless in proceeding against Assange for unlawfully acquiring the files that are the property of the US Government or in stopping him from unauthorized leak of these classified documents. Assange is defying pressure by the Pentagon to return the documents despite its threats to “compel” the whistle-blowing website “to do the right thing”.

Military Intel files (also called The War Logs) released by WikiLeaks to New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel, is a collection of internal US military logs of the war in Afghanistan. In all, these are 92,000 documents, covering period between Jan 2004 and Dec 2009, of which 76,900 have been released while 15,000 memos were held back for danger minimization to innocent people but are now expected to be released soon.

Besides causing a stir in the US and several countries engaged in the Afghan war, publication of these documents has led to media frenzy and wild assessments are being made about the conduct of the war and their impact on its direction.

In its reaction after it published the documents, The New York Times described them as “a six-year archive of classified military documents that offers an unvarnished and grim picture of the Afghan war”. The Guardian called the material “one of the biggest leaks in US military history….a devastating portrait of failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and NATO commanders fear neighboring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency”. Der Spiegel wrote that “the editor in chief of Spiegel, The New York Times and the Guardian were unanimous in their belief that there is a justified public interest in the material”.

In his interview with Der Spiegel, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange said he believed the release would “change public opinion” and claimed that the files “suggest thousands of war crimes.”

The gravity of the leaks may be indeterminate for now in view of incomplete scrutiny due to their sheer size – 72,000 files. Only when the scrutiny of the capacious documents is over their real impact on the war and the American administration will emerge. But this does have the potential of graver consequences for US Administration, especially the Pentagon.

As the media frenzy slows down, realization is emerging that these documents are after all not entirely authentic and reliable. These are generally low level intelligence reports and logs based on hearsay, assessments sans evidence to back them up, reports by paid informers which are more often than not highly exaggerated and poor quality reports from Afghan intelligence sources which lack credibility because of tribal affiliations, personal hostilities and prejudices of intelligence operatives.

The Guardian quotes a retired senior American officer as saying: “the 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”.

“The fog of war is particularly dense in Afghanistan,” said Michael Semple, a former deputy head of the EU mission in Afghanistan. “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.”

Despite the ambiguities about the information leaked, however, certain concerns about the conduct of war will be difficult for the Pentagon to explain. For example, according to The Guardian, Government accounts of coalition activity were sometimes “misleading”. The New York Times reported that the US military had given Afghans credit for missions that were actually carried out by Special Operations commandos. The paper says “….. In some cases the documents show that the American military made misleading public statements”. According to The New York Times, the use of Stinger Missiles was never acknowledged by the US military, lending credibility to the view that the Taliban are a more capable fighting force than previously thought.

Of much greater concern to every one is the revelation of the names and addresses of hundreds of Afghan informants who worked with the US troops and shared information about the Taliban. Julian Assange of Wikileaks had made it clear that his objective in releasing these documents was to “end the war in Afghanistan” and “oppose an unjust [war] plan before it reaches implementation.” He has certainly helped the Taliban by his illegal disclosures to undermine Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy before it had a chance to work.

Soon after the documents were published Afghan tribal leaders began receiving death threats. A few days later, one such leader was executed. This has sparked a panic among many Afghans collaborators. A Taliban intelligence officer warned that they intend to add names of collaborators in each province to their hit lists.” He said that the message being sent to the Afghan people is: “America is not a good protector of spies.”

This would be a devastating blow to Gen Petraeus’s strategy. In the counterinsurgency guidelines he just issued to his troops he said: “Secure and serve the population. . . . Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and [the International Security Assistance Force] prevail.” Petraeus explained that if security is established “the populace begins to assist [the coalition] more actively. Eventually, the people marginalize and stigmatize insurgents to the point that the insurgency’s claim to legitimacy is destroyed.”

To counter Petraeus’s plan, in June the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, issued his guidelines to his troops directing them to “Capture and kill any Afghan who is supporting and/or working for coalition forces or the Government of Afghanistan”.  WikiLeaks has made the Taliban’s job much easier. There is no way Petraeus can now persuade Afghans to join the fight against the Taliban when his organization has failed to protect the identities of its collaborators.

Intriguingly, a segment of the documents, though a very small percentage (about 180 out of 92,000), reveal a pattern of biased reporting against Pakistan and its intelligence agency – the ISI. They allege that the Pakistan army and ISI have worked in cahoots with the Taliban.

This has flared up the existing anti-Pakistan sentiment in the west, despite the unanimity of analysts and senior administration officials about the flimsy nature of the sources providing this information, namely: NDS – the Afghan intelligence and some paid informants. Although tiny (less than 0.2%) in relation to documents that deal with the US military and ISAF, anti-Pakistan lobbies have blown the allegations out of proportion and have made them the centerpiece of their coverage, thus taking the eyes off the mishandling of war by US military and ISAF, atrocities committed by them against innocent men women and children in the name of collateral damage and casting doubts on the contribution of Pakistan army and the ISI in the ongoing counterinsurgency.

Some preposterous and unsubstantiated allegations have found their way into the media that include for instance, ISI training Taliban legions of suicide bombers, smuggling SAMs into Afghanistan, its involvement in attacking NATO warplanes, its involvement in plotting to assassinate President Karzai, plotting to poison the beer supply of Western troops and bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008.

The Guardian report, rejecting this info in the leaked files says “But for all their eye-popping details, the intelligence files, which are mostly collated by junior officers relying on informants and Afghan officials, fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity. Most of the reports are vague, filled with incongruent detail, or crudely fabricated.”

The Guardian report further says, “Many of the 180 reports appear to betray as much about the motivation of the sources than those of the alleged foreign puppet-masters. Some US officers were aware of this. One report from 2006 notes that an informant “divulges information for monetary remuneration and likely fabricated or exaggerated the above report for just that reason”.

The allegation of the Karzai plot is sourced to the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s spy agency, which has a history of hostility towards the ISI. A retired US officer with long experience in the region told the Guardian. “There’s an Afghan prejudice that wants to see an ISI agent under every rock.”

Pakistan rejected these reports as ‘baseless and unsubstantiated information’, ‘malicious propaganda’ and ‘devoid of ground realities’. A Foreign Office spokesman called Wikileaks reports “… nowhere near the truth … and in fact shows that writers of such reports have no understanding of the issues”. He said that “Pakistan’s role in stability and peace in Afghanistan cannot be negated through such reports”.

ISI also lashed out against the trove of these leaked intelligence reports, calling the accusations malicious and unsubstantiated. An ISI official said: “In the intelligence world, preliminary and final reports are two different things. Only once something is collaborated from multiple sources does it become a credible piece of information. The majority of these [documents] are preliminary reports, and they are mostly from Afghan intelligence, whose credibility for ever remains a big question mark.”

To deflect the criticism that the White House has faced for a failing war and capitalizing on the accusations of ISI’s alleged links with the Taliban, it said in a statement that the situation was “unacceptable” and described militant safe havens in Pakistan as “intolerable”. But in the same breath, as if to minimize the impact of these remarks on Pakistan whose support the US needs, President Obama’s National Security Advisor James Jones praised the hard won Pakistani gains against Taliban over the last year and reaffirmed close strategic partnership with the ally. He said “These irresponsible leaks will not impact our ongoing commitment to deepen our partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan; to defeat our common enemies; and to support the aspirations of the Afghan and Pakistani people.”

But this provided an opportunity to the Karzai administration and India to further poison the well for the Pakistan Army and the ISI. India might use this hype to lobby pro-India legislators on the Capitol Hill to throw spanners in the military and economic support pledged to Pakistan.

Writing in The Guardian (July 25) Declan Walsh said of the implicit criticism of the ISI: “The White House may be trying to keep ahead of a tide of US opinion that is hostile towards Pakistan. But the Obama administration has little choice but to stick with its Pakistani allies, whose co-operation they need in hunting al-Qaida fugitives along the Afghan border.” He went on to say, “The war logs are likely to stoke passions in Pakistan where the rightwing press has long accused the US of seeking an excuse to invade and seize the country’s nuclear weapons.”

Until the scrutiny of the remaining already released documents is completed and the fate of the remaining 15,000 even more sensation-generating unreleased documents is decided, the controversy will rage on, making Obama administration’s job and implementation of General Petraeus’s strategy more difficult in Afghanistan.