Since the mega–leak of 90,000 classified intelligence documents to three news organizations, WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has held a follow up press conference and several subsequent interviews, prompting a flurry of counter briefings and reaction from the White House, the Pakistani government, and others. Yet the public, seeking a better understanding of the Afghan situation, is feeling scarcely more enlightened or empowered than they did a week ago. Despite their scale and scope, the leaked documents provide little that is revelatory to those who have closely followed all the reporting on Afghanistan, filed by countless capable journalists week in week out, year in, year out, from their respective posts in Kabul, Islamabad, Washington, Peshawar, FOB Helmand and elsewhere.
True, the military intelligence reports are more prolific and detailed than the journalism on this subject over the same period. Do six years of combined articles and transcripts from American and British reporting of the Afghan war add up to the same amount of written material? Probably not quite, but then the military has more assets at work than news organizations in these belt–tightened days, many more. (Despite that, what appears to be missing from the intel is some basic second sourcing procedures that most journalists, one hopes, would be adopting from an early stage in the information gathering process.)
But if what we have learned from all this reporting on the leak itself stands up, the raw intel and the edited journalism covering the war tend to very broadly agree. The U.S. military has had a longstanding and deeply held mistrust of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, and its involvement with the Taliban, and these documents provide many examples of direct links between the two organizations—in particular, Pakistani officers providing support, training, and assets to Taliban commanders. Nothing new here, was the White House response on Monday. Indeed, reports of this kind of U.S. suspicion of its ally in the war have been a running theme of Afghan war journalism (although it is also true that much of the raw intel fingering Pakistan for its links to the Taliban comes from the Afghan intelligence agency which, as one Afghan journalist has put it, would readily blame the ISI if storm clouds appeared over Kabul).
WikiLeaks has said the U.S. military might be guilty of war crimes, citing one of several apparently almost indiscriminate aerial attacks on a group of insurgents, in which many civilians were killed. True, perhaps, if difficult to prove legally in a wartime situation. But the fact that the U.S. military has, as the ground fight has become more and more deadly, taken to the air, using drones and other lethal air assets, has hardly gone unnoticed by war reporters in recent months. Duly reported, too, have been civilian deaths, their political repercussions on the fatally weak Afghan government and the free gift they bring to those recruiting for the Taliban and Al Qaeda in their war on 'the West.' Not news, either, that the United States assassinates high–value targets—remember the deck of cards in Iraq? How much due process, in the end, accompanied that list of 52?
Julian Assange stated that he hoped releasing the intel trove would highlight the high civilian death toll caused by both U.S. air strikes and Taliban IEDs and bombings alike. No news there either, most commentators appear to agree. And anyone reading media reports of the British “re–deployment” from Helmand province this month would understand only too well the growing strength of the Taliban, and Western troops’ current inability to clear and hold on the ground, or nation build amongst the mud–walled villages of southern Afghanistan.
Assange has called the leaker a "hero," and likened the scale of the exposed documents to the Stasi files of East Germany. Der Spiegel wrote that the leak countered American Military propaganda. But in fact, we can be encouraged that much of what these communications reveal has already been exposed through the journalism emanating from the war. The documents reassure us that our reporting is largely on target, and confirms the public’s sense that this is a long and brutal conflict without end in sight, one which causes thousands of civilian deaths and collateral damage. The public knew that Afghanistan is a morass of tribal rivalries neighbored by an unstable nuclear power. It can now both trust its own conclusions more readily, and celebrate the leaker ‘pour encourager les autres.'