(Updated and revised.)
(Updated and revised again, Tuesday, July 27)
"I am shocked -- shocked! -- to find gambling is going on in here" -- Captain Renault at the gaming tables in Casablanca.
The much ballyhooed dump of intelligence and diplomatic files concerning the Afghan War has been trumpeted as some kind of shocking expose, "painting a different picture" than the official version of events -- revelations that are sure to rock the Anglo-American political establishments to their foundations.
The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel were given 92,000 reports by Wikileaks, including thousands of pages of raw "human intelligence" (i.e., uncorroborated claims and gossip from interested parties and anonymous sources pushing a multitude of agendas), and diplomatic notes passed between the promulgators of the occupation in Washington and their factotums "in country" -- reports which you might imagine also purvey a multitude of agendas ... not least the supreme agenda of all officials involved in a dubious enterprise: ass-covering.
Yet these reports are being treated as if they are the "grim truth" behind the shining picture of official propaganda. But what do these stories in the NYT and Guardian actually "reveal"? Let's see:
- That the occupation forces kill lots of civilians at checkpoints and botched raids, then lie about it afterward.
- That these killings make Afghans angry and fuel the insurgency.
- That elements of Pakistani intelligence are involved with some elements of the many resistance groups known collectively (and incorrectly) in the West as the Taliban.
- That the Americans are using more and more robot drones to kill people.
- That the Americans are running death squads in Afghanistan aimed at Taliban leaders.
- That Afghan officials are corrupt, and that Afghan police and military forces are woefully inadequate.
Is there anything in these breathless new recitations that we did not already know? For example, the NYT offers a few short vignettes from the leaked documents concerning botched raids and errant missiles that slaughter civilians. But in almost every case, these have already been extensively reported -- in the Times itself and other mainstream venues -- in much greater detail, with quotes and evidence from the victims and local eyewitnesses, and not just the self-interested, ass-covering perspective of official occupation reports. And the "revelation" that occupation forces are killing "an amazing number of people" who have "never proven to be a threat" at checkpoints was confirmed months ago by no less than Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the erstwhile commander of the whole shebang.
Likewise, the entanglement between Pakistani intelligence services and some elements of violent resistance in Afghanistan has been a constant theme of mainstream reportage on the Afghan War since the very beginning -- not to mention a relentless drumbeat of official "concern" in Washington. It is a rare week indeed when some Washington bigwig is not hinting darkly -- or declaring outright -- that Pakistan needs to "get with the program" in one way or another.
The increasing use of drones is also no secret; indeed, it is frequently featured in giddy press reports about these neat gizmos our boys are using to bravely blast villages on the other side of the world from comfortably padded chairs in Nevada control rooms.
And America's assassination squads have also been loudly proclaimed and hailed; scarcely a week goes by without a story about yet another "top-level" Taliban or al Qaeda dastard meeting his doom. And of course, the Peace Laureate's administration recently "leaked" the news that America is running hit squads, secret armies and other covert operators in more than 75 countries around the world -- with the Peace Laureate also proclaiming his right to assassinate American citizens when he feels like it.
As for the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan "government" installed by the foreign occupiers, and the untrustworthiness of the Afghan police and military being trained by the foreign occupiers to do their dirty work for them -- again, this too has been a running theme not only of media coverage but a plethora of official pronouncements. Has a month gone by in recent years when some top-level Washington figure has not scolded the powerless Afghan government for its manifold failings? Has a month gone by without long, detailed stories -- usually in the New York Times itself -- outlining the venality and brutality of the warlords, gangsters, religious extremists and corruptocrats that the United States has empowered in the occupied land?
Where then are the "revelations"? Anyone who has regularly read, well, the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel could not remotely be surprised by any of the facts (as opposed to the oceans of spin and supposition) buried in this mountain of leakage. These are not the Pentagon Papers or the Downing Street Memos; they do almost nothing to alter the public image of the war, and tell almost nothing that we don't already know.
In fact, the overall effect of the multi-part coverage of the documents is to paint a portrait of plucky, put-upon Americans trying their darnedest to get the job done despite the dastardly dealings and gooberish bumblings of the ungrateful little brown wretches we are trying to save from themselves. The NYT is quite explicit in this spin:
[T]he documents sketch a war hamstrung by an Afghan government, police force and army of questionable loyalty and competence, and by a Pakistani military that appears at best uncooperative and at worst to work from the shadows as an unspoken ally of the very insurgent forces the American-led coalition is trying to defeat.So you see, if our noble enterprise is failing, it’s because the Afghans are idiots, the Pakistanis are backstabbers ... and the Iranians are behind it all, training Taliban fighters, making their bombs and bankrolling the political opposition to America's appointed satrap, Hamid Karzai.
Ah, here we get down to it. Here's metal more attractive for our militarists. The treachery of Iran is a constant theme in the leakage -- both in the raw, unsifted, uncorroborated "humint" and in the diplomatic cables of puzzled occupiers who cannot fathom why there should be any opposition to their enlightened rule. It must the fault of those perfidious Persians!
One can only imagine the lipsmacking and handclapping now rampant among the Bomb Iran crowd as they pore over these unsubstantiated rumors and Potomac ass-coverings which are being doled out -- by the "liberal" media, no less! -- as the new, grim truth about Afghanistan. The Guardian helpfully compiles the incendiary material for them:
Iran is engaged in an extensive covert campaign to arm, finance, train and equip Taliban insurgents, Afghan warlords allied to al-Qaida and suicide bombers fighting to eject British and western forces from Afghanistan, according to classified US military intelligence reports contained in the war logs.
The secret "threat reports", mostly comprising raw data provided by Afghan spies and paid informants, cannot be corroborated individually. Even if the claims are accurate, it is unclear whether the activities they describe took place with the full knowledge of Tehran or are the work of hardline elements of the semi-autonomous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, ideological sympathisers of the Taliban, arms smugglers or criminal gangs ....
Yes, no doubt there are a great many "ideological sympathisers" of the Taliban's Shiite-hating Sunni extremists among the, er, Shiites in Iran. But such nuances don't matter; all that matters is that you get some headlines out there about "Iran's covert operations in Afghanistan." [Because, as we all know, it is an unmitigated evil for any nation to conduct covert operations in another country -- unless, of course, that nation is run by nice, clean, English-speaking people.]
The Guardian details a number of raw humint reports on Iranian dastardy, then makes a curious claim for its other sources:
Summaries of US embassy diplomatic cables and situation assessments contained and distributed through the war logs offer firmer ground than some of the raw intelligence data, given that they are evidently written by American officials and represent an official record, or official evaluation, of high-level meetings.
Why should the "situation assessments" of ass-covering bureaucrats necessarily be "firmer" than the gossip and denunciations being retailed in the "humint" reports? Especially if they are telling Washington exactly what it wants to hear: the Iranians are behind our manifest failures, both militarily and politically. The Guardian:
Summaries of classified diplomatic cables produced by the US embassy in Kabul, contained in the war logs, reveal high-level concern about Tehran's growing political influence in Afghanistan. Senior US and Afghan officials appear at a loss over how to counter Iran's alleged bribery and manipulation of opposition parties and MPs whom Afghan government officials dismiss as Tehran's "puppets"....
"Over the past several months Iran has taken a series of steps to expand and deepen its influence," says a secret cable sourced to the US embassy in Kabul and written in May 2007 by CSTC-A DCG for Pol-Mil Affairs [combined security transition command deputy commanding general for political and military affairs]. The cable cites the creation of the opposition National Front and National Unity Council, which it claims are under Iranian influence.
Wow, that's heavy stuff, man. An apparatchik in the US embassy says that the political opposition to America's man in Kabul is just Iranian puppetry. Obviously, those Afghan ragheads couldn't possibly put together an opposition by themselves. (It's just like that Civil Rights stuff back in the day; it was all a Communist front. You know our docile darkies would never have tried to get above their raising if the Commies hadn't stirred them up.)
We see here a reflection of one of the enduring principles of the American power structure: that no one could ever have any reasonable objections to the enlightened hegemony of our elites. Any opposition to their dominance and privilege has to come from "outside agitators," sinister troublemakers driven by motiveless evil to destroy all that's good and holy in this world.
So in the end, what really is the "takeaway" from this barrage of high-profile "revelations" dished up by these bold liberal gadflies speaking truth to power? Let's recap:
Occupation forces kill lots of civilians. But everybody already knew that -- and it's been obvious for years that nobody cares. How does this alter the prevailing conventional wisdom about the war?
Pakistan is pursuing its own strategic interests in the region: interests that don't always mesh with those of the United States. Again, this has been a constantly -- obsessively -- reported aspect of the war since its earliest days. How does this alter the prevailing conventional wisdom about the war?
The Afghan government installed by the occupation is corrupt and dysfunctional. Again, this theme has been sounded at every level of the American government -- including by two presidents -- for years. How does this alter the prevailing conventional wisdom of the war?
There is often a dichotomy between official statements about the war's progress and the reality of the war on the ground. Again, has there been a month in the last nine years that prominent stories outlining this fact have not appeared in major mainstream publications? Is this not a well-known phenomenon of every single military conflict in human history? How does this alter the prevailing conventional wisdom about the war?
Iran is evil and is helping bad guys kill Americans and should be stopped. It goes without saying that this too has been a relentless drumbeat of the American power structure for many years. The occupation forces in Iraq began blaming Iran for the rise of the insurgency and the political instability almost the moment after George W. Bush proclaimed "mission accomplished" and all hell broke loose in the conquered land. The Obama administration has "continued" -- and expanded -- the Bush Regime's demonization of Iran, and its extensive military preparations for an attack on that country. The current administration's "diplomatic effort" is led by a woman who pledged to "obliterate" Iran -- that is, to kill tens of millions of innocent people -- if Iran attacked Israel. The American power structure has seized upon every single scrap of Curveball-quality "intelligence" -- every rumor, every lie, every exaggeration, every fabrication -- to convince the American people that Iran is about to nuke downtown Omaha with burqa-clad atom bombs.
So once again, and for the last time, we ask the question: How does this alter the prevailing conventional wisdom about the war?
It doesn't, of course. These media "bombshells" will simply bounce off the hardened shell of American exceptionalism -- which easily countenances the slaughter of civilians and "targeted killings" and "indefinite detention" and any number of other atrocities anyway. In fact, I predict the chief "takeaway" from the story will be this:
American forces are doing their best to help the poor Afghans, but the ungrateful natives are too weak and corrupt to be trusted, while America's good intentions are also being thwarted by evil outsiders.
For our many War Machinists across the political spectrum, getting this mythological message out via "critical" stories in "liberal" publications will be much more effective than dishing up another serving of patriotic hokum on Fox news or at a presidential press conference. (And in fact, on Tuesday Obama claimed that the leaks actually supported the need for his two death-dealing, destabilizing, terror-exacerbating, corruption-oozing "surges" in Afghanistan.) The way the narrative is being framed at the outset -- the small selection of stories being offered as the first "face" of the leaks from the mountains of material as yet unmined -- evokes the age-old question: in the end, cui bono?
The war chiefs are assuming that these 92,000 files about the Afghan war were obtained by an American private serving in Iraq, the unfortunate Bradley Manning. (Wikileaks denies that this particular cache comes from Manning.) Manning is already under arrest for the "crime" of leaking something far more disturbing than any written document: a video showing the slaughter of Iraqi civilians by American Apache helicopters in 2007. Washington knows that a couple of moving pictures on the tee-vee have a far greater potential to disturb the moral sleep of the American people than tens of thousands of newspaper reports -- or leaked documents -- detailing similar killings. (That said, in the end the Apache video has had zero effect on public perceptions of the Iraq War, which most people believe is "over," or on public support for the murderous machinations of the Terror War in general, which most people believe needs to continue in one form or another, to "keep us safe.") The only kind of grim truth attended to by anyone in America these days is that which can be shown in moving pictures. (Although the number of people who are upset even by that seems to be rapidly diminishing. That's why Manning had to be put away.
Ultimately, I suppose on balance it is better to have this material than not to have it. But I still question the usefulness of rolling out mountains of raw "human intelligence" -- precisely the same kind of unfiltered junk that was "stovepiped" to build the false case for the mass-murdering invasion of Iraq -- about Iran, al Qaeda, Pakistan; even North Korea gets into the mix. None of this can be checked -- but all of it will be extremely useful to those who want to build cases for more and more military action, death squads and covert actions around the world.
And it seems very odd that intelligence reports and bureaucratic memos by forces carrying out a prolonged, brutal military occupation of another country are now being treated by "liberal" media outlets as holy writ which paints a "true" picture of the war -- a picture that omits any reference to American war-related corruption, for instance, not only in Afghanistan but more especially in Washington, or to America's wider "Great Game" machinations in Central Asia, involving pipelines, strategic bases and "containing China," etc.
If I believed anything would come of this document dump, if I believed it would actually lead to, say, the prosecution of even one single person for a war-related crime, or to a genuine debate over the morality of the war in the political and media establishments, or even a 5 point rise in public opposition to the Terror War project, then I would rejoice, and embrace the flashy packages of the NYT, Guardian and Der Spiegel at their own self-inflated valuation.
But I honestly believe that the net effect will be simply to entrench the conventional wisdom about the war in the halls of power -- and in the echo chambers of opinion -- on both sides of the Atlantic. We have already seen far too many atrocities, brutalities and acts of criminal folly countenanced, when they are not actually praised, far too many times -- over and over and over again -- in the course of the last decade to believe that these disgorgings of junk intelligence and apparatchik memos will make any difference.
Any difference for the better, that is. For I believe they will supply plenty of ammunition to those bent on further murder and plunder.
(*NOTE: A few sentences have been rewritten today (July 27) to reflect new information and to clarify a couple of points in the original.**)
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