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Wikileaking Afghanistan: disaster is not a good thing, but knowing about it is

It’s out: an enormous trove of documents about the war in Afghanistan yesterday appeared on Wikileaks (whose servers currently seem to be overwhelmed by the traffic) together with comprehensive reports by The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and the Guardian. The leak represents no less than a historic act of civil disobedience; consisting of 92,201 US military internal records, this is the largest leak of classified material in history. Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, may be a criminal in the eyes of the US government, which has roundly condemned his work even while begging for his help to plug up his sources (this administration has been harsher with informants than its predecessor). A 22-year-old American intelligence analyst in Iraq named Bradley Manning has already been arrested for, under the online handle Bradass87, funneling the documents to where Wikileaks could arrange to publicize them. He wrote in an online chat of the trove, “it[‘]s beautiful and horrifying … It’s public data, it belongs in the public domain.”

To Assange and Manning, and to many others, keeping records like this classified is far worse a crime than releasing them. Explore the documents, particularly at those three outlets above which have had access to them for several weeks, and see the dark impression they convey about what has really been going on in Afghanistan. The Guardian summarizes:

• coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents

• Taliban attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan Iran are fuelling the insurgency.

• a secret “black” unit of special forces hunts down Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial.

• the US covered up evidence that the Taliban have acquired deadly surface-to-air missiles.

• the coalition is increasingly using deadly Reaper drones to hunt and kill Taliban targets by remote control from a base in Nevada.

• the Taliban have caused growing carnage with a massive escalation of their roadside bombing campaign, which has killed more than 2,000 civilians to date.

“The war logs” inevitably bring to mind Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which helped turn the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War. What impact will this leak, which is considerably larger, have?

The documents all date from before December 2009, when the new “surge” was launched, so they don’t tell us anything about its progress. But they do suggest the true challenges that it faces, with a clarity which the public didn’t have access to when it put its continued support behind Obama’s war last year. If we had known then what we know now, would Congress have allowed itself to fund the surge? And, if things are getting so much worse, why does the administration continue to insist on escalating?

Some who have opposed the war since its beginning back in 2001 may feel the temptation to be gratified that Afghanistan has become so much the quagmire that we predicted. That apologists for the war continually use military successes, such as they are, to retroactively justify military force only encourages the war’s critics to claim failures as a kind of vindication—which in turn makes the critics vulnerable to accusations of siding with the so-called enemy. No—what these documents portray is nothing other than a disaster, one to be regretted by all and forcing all to come to grips with what we are actually dealing with: a dreadful war and a government unwilling to admit it.

What the trove reveals, also, is how information resistance may be a form of resistance par excellence today. Bringing the truth to light like this, on such a massive scale and in such a concerted fashion, lends new meaning to Gandhi’s call for “truth force.”