|"We know that serious challenges lie ahead, but if Afghanistan is permitted to slide backwards, we will again face a threat from violent extremist groups like Al Qaeda." — General James L. Jones, White House national security adviser. (Saurabh Das/ Associated Press)|
Leaked archive casts stark light on Afghan war
US classified files depict grim trends, ally’s failings
NEW YORK — A six-year archive of classified military documents made public yesterday offers an unvarnished ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.
The secret documents, being released on the Internet by an organization called WikiLeaks, are a daily diary of an American-led force often starved for resources and attention as it struggled against an insurgency that grew larger, better coordinated, and more deadly each year.
The New York Times, the British newspaper The Guardian, and the German magazine Der Spiegel were given access to the voluminous records several weeks ago on the condition that they not report on the material before yesterday.
The documents — some 92,000 reports spanning parts of two administrations from January 2004 through December 2009 — illustrate in mosaic detail why, after the United States has spent almost $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001.
As the new American commander in Afghanistan, General David H. Petraeus, tries to reverse the lagging war effort, the 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 working from the shadows as an unspoken ally of the very insurgent forces the American-led coalition is trying to defeat.
The material is being published as Congress and the public grow increasingly skeptical of the deepening involvement in Afghanistan and its chances for success as next year’s deadline to begin withdrawing troops looms.
The archive is a vivid reminder that the Afghan conflict until recently was a second-class war, with money, troops, and attention lavished on Iraq while soldiers and Marines lamented that the Afghans they were training were not being paid.
The reports shed light on some elements of the war that have been largely hidden from the public eye:
■ The documents suggest that Pakistan, ostensibly an ally of the United States, allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders.
The records also contain firsthand accounts of American anger at Pakistan’s unwillingness to confront insurgents who launched attacks near Pakistani border posts, moved openly by the truckload across the frontier, and retreated to Pakistani territory for safety.
■ The Taliban have used portable heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft, a fact that has not been publicly disclosed by the military. This type of weapon helped the Afghan mujahedeen defeat the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
■ Secret commando units like Task Force 373 — a classified group of Army and Navy special operatives — work from a “capture/kill list’’ of about 70 top insurgent commanders. These missions, which have been stepped up under the Obama administration, claim notable successes, but have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment.
■ The military employs more and more drone aircraft to survey the battlefield and strike targets in Afghanistan, although their performance is less impressive than officially portrayed. Some crash or collide, forcing American troops to undertake risky retrieval missions before the Taliban can claim the drone’s weaponry.
■ The Central Intelligence Agency has expanded paramilitary operations inside Afghanistan. The units launch ambushes, order airstrikes, and conduct raids. From 2001 to 2008, the CIA paid the budget of Afghanistan’s spy agency and ran it as a virtual subsidiary.
Overall, the documents do not contradict official accounts of the war. But in some cases the documents show that the American military made misleading public statements: attributing the downing of a helicopter to conventional weapons instead of heat-seeking missiles or giving Afghans credit for missions carried out by Special Operations commandos.
White House officials vigorously denied that the Obama administration had presented a misleading portrait of the war in Afghanistan.
“On Dec. 1, 2009, President Obama announced a new strategy with a substantial increase in resources for Afghanistan, and increased focus on Al Qaeda and Taliban safe-havens in Pakistan, precisely because of the grave situation that had developed over several years,’’ said General James L. Jones, the White House national security adviser, in a statement released yesterday.
“We know that serious challenges lie ahead, but if Afghanistan is permitted to slide backwards, we will again face a threat from violent extremist groups like Al Qaeda who will have more space to plot and train,’’ his statement said.
He also condemned the decision by WikiLeaks to make the documents public, citing “the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.’’
The archive is clearly an incomplete record of the war. It is missing many references to seminal events and does not include more highly classified information. The documents also do not cover events in 2010, when the influx of more troops into Afghanistan began and a new counterinsurgency strategy took hold.
They suggest that the military’s internal assessments of the prospects for winning over the Afghan public, especially in the early days, were often optimistic, even naive.
There are fleeting — even taunting — reminders of how the war began in the occasional references to the elusive Osama bin Laden. In some reports he is said to be attending meetings in Quetta, Pakistan. Bin Laden has supposedly ordered a suicide attack against the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. These reports all seem secondhand at best.
The reports portray a resilient, canny insurgency that has bled American forces through a war of small cuts. The insurgents set the war’s pace, usually fighting on ground of their own choosing and then slipping away.
Sabotage and trickery have been weapons every bit as potent as small arms, mortars, or suicide bombers. So has Taliban intimidation of Afghan officials and civilians, applied with pinpoint pressure. The insurgents use a network of spies, double agents, collaborators, and informers — anything to undercut coalition forces and the effort to build a credible and effective government capable of delivering security and services.
The reports repeatedly describe instances when the insurgents have been seen wearing government uniforms, and other times when they have appeared for battle in the very pickup trucks that the United States had provided the Afghan army and police force.
The reports paint a disheartening picture of the Afghan police and soldiers at the center of the American exit strategy.
The Pentagon is spending billions of dollars to train the Afghan forces to secure the country. But the police have proved to be an especially risky investment and are often described as distrusted, even loathed, by Afghan civilians. The reports recount episodes of police brutality, corruption petty and large, extortion, and kidnapping. Some police officers defect to the Taliban. Others are accused of collaborating with insurgents.
The documents also show how American efforts to help rebuild Afghanistan through provincial reconstruction teams ran up against a bewildering array of problems as they tried to win over the public by helping repair dams and bridges, build schools, and train local authorities.
Incident by incident, the reports show ways Afghan civilians were killed — not just in airstrikes but in ones and twos — in misunderstandings or in a cross-fire, or in chaotic moments when Afghan drivers ventured too close to convoys and checkpoints.
The dead, the reports indicate, were not suicide bombers or insurgents, and many of the cases were not reported to the public at the time. The toll of the war — reflected in mounting civilian casualties — left the Americans seeking cooperation from an Afghan population that grew steadily more exhausted, resentful, fearful, and alienated.