Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Wikileaks, Strategic Communications and (Im-)Plausible Denials

Thomas Ruttig 7 min

Wikileaks, with its publication of some 75,000 classified US military documents on the war in Afghanistan on Sunday, has brilliantly made use of the summer slump. Instead of escaped crocodiles at lakes popular with swimmers (a favourite of the German media in former years) or silly ideas of backbenchers, we have been given the chance to have a newly energised debate about Afghanistan. i.e. what the West is doing there, for what purpose and – if we’re really good – what Afghans (not only Karzai and the Taleban) want. It just can be hoped that this is not, again, turned into a purely domestic debate with the aim of scoring cheap political points. Therefore, it might be useful to check what is really new in the leaked documents and what the leak signifies.

The ‘Afghan War Diary’, as Wikileaks calls the collection it received from an undisclosed source, now hunted for treason, have created a wave. The original ‘owner’ of the files, the US government, already shows the ‘natural’ reactions: accusations of ‘treason’ against the Wikileaker and possibly Wikileaks itself while ‘the U.S. military is on the hunt’ for the source of the documents,says the AfPak Channel. It also relates that the documents ‘appear to have been taken from SIPRNet, which hundreds of thousands of military personnel, civilian employees, contractors, and U.S. allies could have accessed’. Furthermore, the US government is ‘in damage control mode as they seek to limit the impact of the Wikileaks disclosures on the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan’ (AfPak Channel).

Western governments are also joining the debate about the careless disclosure of the names of Afghan sources mentioned in the reports – which indeed puts them into lethal danger. However, this looks a bit as if they try to deflect some of the criticism linked with the content of the documents. One wished they would exercise the same amount of care for Afghan civilians during drone attacks, close air support and other military action and that they would not let Afghans wait in front of their bases for hours, so that Taleban scouts have an easy job. In general, the governments try to take steam out of the discussion, saying that they need to examine the files and that this will take ‘weeks’. Maybe that’s good: Most parliamentarians and common people will be back from the summer leave by then and might join the debate.

Researchers need to be grateful to Wikileaks. It provides raw material that is rare to find in such volume, in a situation where in Afghanistan (but not only there) the provision of accurate information has been replaced by ‘strategic communications’. Who of us has not read the often unreadable stuff doled out by NATO, the UN or governments (including the Afghan) or experienced on-the-record briefings followed by diametrically different off-the-records renderings? The crisis of the Afghan ‘mission‘, the negative trends in all of its sectors – from security to development – has made fewer and fewer officials ready to accept political responsibility by simply telling the truth on how difficult and complex things are and that indeed fundamental mistakes have been made which have now tangled up in a Gordian knot. Information literally has to be wrought out of officials’ mouths and access to it has been limited more and more. The Afghan government, also, is learning in this field.

Under that new kind of ‘strategic communication’, bits of ‘information’ are sold to make people (journalists, voters etc.) believe things that do not or do not fully exist or that leave out parts of the story or the consequences of some stories. No objection that ‘good news’ also needs to be distributed – but can we believe them when the ‘bad news’ is already distorted?

Furthermore, news items and analysts’ reports about Afghanistan (including our own ones) are full of people who ‘do not want to see their names printed because they are not authorised to speak’. More and more sources ‘cannot be identified’ because they have to fear disciplinary action, including dismissal from their jobs, or, in the case of Afghans, much graver consequences. As a result, you are sent to press spokesmen who either have no or very limited clue about what they are talking about or, worse, are trained to give you bullshit, sorry, the official version.

As in the Wikileaks case, the first reaction often is to search for the leaker – instead of wondering whether possibly a political decision or action has been flawed and needed correction instead of denial and cover-up. Remember the UN mission in Kabul during last year’s fraud-marred presidential elections: It needed leaks to correct a wrong decision (to keep reports of fraud by its own personnel hidden) – and the result was even more monitoring of UN staff’s email traffic but not, at least not to my knowledge, a UN investigation about whether people in the organisation violated UN principles. Under such circumstances, whistleblowers are and will be natural occurrences.

All in all, the Wikileaks affair has shown us like under a magnifying glass how little transparency there is. And this partly explains the surprised reactions of (opposition) politicians and journalists.

Part 2:

Although very much has been written about it already, a few more sentences about the content of the leaked documents: The New York Times, the Guardian and Spiegel magazine – who have been given simultaneous exclusive access to the files – pull out a handful of what the NYT calls ‘elements of the war that have been largely hidden from the public eye’:

– the use of portable, heat-seeking ground-to-air missiles by the Taleban;
– the existence of a secret US commando units called ‘Task Force 373’ that eliminate insurgency leaders on the basis of a “capture/kill list” (NYT) officially called ‘Joint Prioritised Effects List (JPEL)’;
– that the C.I.A. – from 2001 to 2008 (only?) – paid the budget of Afghanistan’s NDS and ‘ran it as a virtual subsidiary’;
– the US government’s increased use of drones and CIA-led paramilitary operations in Afghanistan;
– that the figure of Afghan civilian casualties – caused by all sides involved in the conflict – is still much higher than reported.

All three newspapers also point out that the documents provide further indications that Pakistan – the Spiegel calls the country a ‘covert enemy’ – and Iran support the insurgents. The German magazine adds, for specific domestic discussion, ‘the naivity of the Germans [vis-à-vis the Taleban] and growing problems in the North’. These last three points (civilian casualties, the roles of Pakistan and Iran, and German naivity) have not really been underreported. Nevertheless, it is good to have confirmation – although with regard to Pakistan and Iran there might be some bias when the reports have Afghans, in particular from the security forces or NDS, as original sources. But even without this, the Pak-Taleban link has been beyond doubt for quite some time.

The one real new fact is the confirmation of rumours swirling around in Kabul since quite a while that the Taleban indeed possess – and have used – heat-seeking missiles against NATO aircrafts, while Western governments have so far denied this fact and ascribed losses to conventional weapons. This fact is significant because such missiles broke the Soviet occupying forces’ air supremacy over the Afghan mujahedin in the 1980s. However, the supply of and training on the US Stingers and UK Blowpipes was an official, although covert, program of Western governments at the time (the Germans, by the way, trained Afghan cameramen to record missile hits) while now – officially – no government does this. Possible candidates – China, Russia, Iran or others – would be foolish to provide such a lethal weapon and to risk the ire of Western governments.

The wiki-leaked documents (at least as far as I have been able to browse them) do not give the type of the used missiles. One option would be that these are remaining 1980s Stingers or Blowpipes. It is known that mujahedin groups sold some of them to Iran and that the US program to buy the distributed missiles back has not been fully successful. Specialists also say that those missiles (or most of them) might be unusable by now, in particular their batteries. But who knows? The second option is that other types of missiles have been procured on the free South or Central Asian markets. In any case, the Taleban (or other groups) do not seem to possess many of them. Otherwise, we would have heard about it.

The existence of TF 373, in contrast, has already been public knowledge. Here in Germany, the Greens filed an official question to the government, at end of last year, and received confirmation, although not on its actual task. Also, the existence of JPEL had been more than an unconfirmed rumour. One question remaining open on this is, however, who contributes to the list and whether there are non-military/non-intelligence institutions doing so.

Another interesting development caused by the wiki-leak is how aggressively Pakistan denies new accusations of its close cooperation with Afghan insurgents. A ‘senior ISI official’ quoted in Wednesday’s Washington Post (“Pakistan decries WikiLeaks release of U.S. military documents on Afghan war”) and ‘speaking on the condition of anonymity according to agency custom’, of course, said ‘the documents… appeared to contain no concrete evidence of ISI backing for the Afghan insurgency’ but that ‘some of the allegations sound ‘very damning’ and ‘[i]f the CIA does not denounce the suggestions, … the ISI might need to reexamine its cooperation’. Similarly, former (1987-89) ISI chief General Hamid Gul: In the same WP article he says that ‘the leaked documents should prompt Pakistan to drop its alliance with the United States’. The Americans are ‘facing defeat in Afghanistan and to cover that, they are coming up with false allegations against Pakistan… This is a pack of lies to malign [the] Pakistan army and the ISI.’

One wonders why a retired head of an intelligence service is allowed to be so outspoken in public about the strategic relations of his countries. One also wonders why the Pakistani government had not taken him out of circulation earlier. It looks as if we have here another example of Pakistan’s multi-pronged Afghanistan strategy, that continues to use former high-ranking but now ‘non-governmental’ ISI facilitators for support to the Taleban.

Maybe some of the accusations in the leaked reports against Hamid Gul personally are incorrect – but his involvement in ‘a group of retired ISI officers, Pakistani scientists and others that was suspected by the United States of giving material support to the Taliban and al-Qaeda’ – the Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, which Gul says was ‘to aid war-ravaged industries in Afghanistan’ – seem to be pretty well-sourced. See a December 2008 Washington Post report (“Former Pakistani Official Denies Links to Lashkar”) that describes how Hamid Gul was put on a ‘U.S. watch list of global terrorists’ after a raid of the organisation’s Kabul office had brought to light documents that indicated it planned to kidnap a U.S. diplomat and which outlined ‘basic physics related to nuclear weapons’. And the ex-general’s answers to Spiegel online which confronted him directly with some of the wiki-leak accusations spoke volumes: ‘Those protocols are nonsense! They are ironic, false and stupid. I deny every single word in them! The role ascribed to me in them is pure fiction.’ ‘Nothing of that is true. Rubbish.’ ‘A ridiculous story.’ As a German proverb says, dogs that are hit bark.

Earlier Pakistani governments used to react equally harshly to similar reports when the Taleban were still in power and the trucks of the Pakistani army’s Afghanistan Cell (set up by Hamid Gul) brought loads of weapons across the border to Afghanistan through Jalalabad on some nights. Because interested intelligence services apparently were not been able to take pictures of those trucks, there never was a ‘smoking gun’ to present and Islamabad was able to maintain its line of plausible deniability with regard to their covert Afghan actions and it is trying to do so to this very day. However, I believe, it is wearing thin.

For the AAN records:

Here is the link to Wikileaks (still working).

And here the links to the initial reports of the three newspapers/magazines that published the docs first:

Der Spiegel

The Guardian

The New York Times