Sunday, August 8, 2010

Papers (Over) Pentagon

Bravo to the folks at Wikileaks!

The Pentagon and the Attorney-General’s office are demanding Wikileaks founder Julian Assange surrender the remaining 15,000 classified files encrypted in a cache ominously entitled, “insurance”. Oh, and he should do the right thing and tear down all the other leaks and delete all Wikileaks records permanently.

Says an irate U.S. federal official, "If doing the right thing is not good enough for them, then we will figure out what other alternatives we have to compel them to do the right thing…"

Yikes! Like slap a Predator drone on them? Or is that honour only bestowed upon non-U.S. nationals? Actually, Assange is an Aussie, so he’s probably fair game.

According to most experts and war pundits, the leaks have not revealed anything that people don't already know. Then, why are Pentagon and FBI officials entreating Wikileaks to delete the files claiming that they contain sensitive information on active operations (informants, tactics, etc)?

The release of the documents has coincided with some other subtle but significant changes.

Criticism and skepticism is starting to make a dent on the Pentagon's much-heralded counter-insurgency campaign that has been put forward as the field-tested (i.e. ostensibly proven during the Iraq Surge in 2006-2007) and the most sensible course to stabilise Afghanistan and inoculate it against terrorism. But then why is the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, so ambivalent about his government’s counterinsurgency strategy? If Eikenberry was judged solely on diplomacy and his ability to cause Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, to be supportive of U.S. foreign policy, his scorecard wouldn't be something to write home about.

Operations such as search and destroy, counter-terrorism, and the remote-controlled assassination campaign using drones are being ratcheted up steadily. Some reports have Obama’s administration’s prodigious reliance on these methods (usually more associated with the Bush administration) rising steadily. By way of illustration, Obama approved 50% more drone attacks in 2009 compared to the previous year under the Bush administration. It appears that drone attacks this year (2010) may be 2-5 times 2008 levels. Meanwhile Joe Biden and Admiral Mullen have gone on the public record confirming that there is a shift away from the counter-insurgency/surge model of approach to operations that search for the bad guys and pick them off. In Pakistan, local populations claim that civilians, including many women and children, are being killed or injured by these strikes (but, they’re probably lying because, well because).

Cracks are appearing all over Iraq. The seemingly intractable political impasse between Nouri al-Maliki and Iyad Allawi coupled with the broad and acute deterioration in security across Iraq give lie to the snake-oil claims of the COINdinistas. What does this mean for Afghanistan? An Anbar-style awakening in Afghanistan will not, if it ever happens (which is hughly unlikely), be a product of counter-insurgency doctrine; it would be a political outcome caused by attune political actors from within the region and sensitive U.S. civilians. Not US/NATO troops.

The rising clamour from Viet Nam veterans drawing comparisons with America's devastating quagmire of the 50s, 60s, and 70s is not longer a trickle. It’s an angry torrent. And as if to emphasise the parallels with America's past errors of tact and judgement, classified documents are being leaked. While it's not at all uncommon for secrets to be shared during times of war (McChrystal, Eikenberry, and others have all done their bit), the scale and breadth of the Wikileaks' cache of 91,000 documents is on par with Daniel Ellsberg's so-called 'Pentagon Papers'. It is worth remembering that at the time, Ellsberg questioned the value of the documents he was copying from RAND, fearing that they lacked the sensational revelations that would make them an instant hit. Back then, just as now, the New York Times demonstrated the same methodical and balanced interest in unearthing the truth of why and how the US gets itself into deadly wars that start off small and become ungainly, unwinnable, yet somehow remaining un-daunting for the powers-that-be.

In fact Ellsberg's prescient and withering analysis at the time can be summed up very simply; successive administrations knew the costs and consequences of escalation (in all its forms) but chose escalation for clear political reasons. Successive presidents did not want to be associated with failure. So, instead of throwing in the towel and admitting defeat, they kept the war simmering thereby deferring what they perceived as 'blame' and voter-alienation in response to 'losing the war'. The Pentagon Papers were 9,000 pages of the best and brightest people's analysis and decision making; detailing all the political contortions and resulting carnage done, not in the interests of the U.S., but in the interests of the political capital of sitting administrations. The Wikileaks Papers may be very similar, possibly even more far-reaching. It's not clear how much of the data is raw intel, how much primary analysis has already been done, and if secondary analysis and higher-level consideration is contained within the cache. Potentially, there may well be a basis for answering critical questions that concern the public interest, issues like:

- Is counter-insurgency being implemented or was this a doctrine used to paper over US/NATO's unimaginative (and doomed) approaches to stabilising Afghanistan?
- Are there clear instances where ISI support to the Taliban (and/or Al Qaeda) have been verified?
- Are the measures used to gather information on AQ/Taliban targets sufficient and reasonable to justify pre-meditated (and extra-judicial) killing?
- Has the remote-controlled technology and new weapons like drones made killing easier?
- Is there a correlation, or a measurable relationship, between the way US/NATO forces conduct their operations and the deteriorating security across Afghanistan?
- Is the way the war in Afghanistan being fought in accordance with international law?
- Is the way US forces conduct the war in Afghanistan within the spirit of Congress's mandate to go to war in Afghanistan?
- Are the numbers of civilian casualties in Pakistan and Afghanistan being concealed or omitted from public scrutiny?

I find it both beguiling and highly suspect that so many political commentators and foreign policy analysts are so quick to dismiss what could be information vital to the public interest.

Again, Bravo Wikileaks!

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