Wikileaks’ Afghan War Diary: Problems to Note, More to Come on Human Terrain Teams

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a financial donor to Wikileaks, and another member of this team, John Stanton, has released his own publications to Cryptome, whose founder was also a co-founder of Wikileaks.

This is a very big moment in time, endlessly fascinating from any number of angles, and sure to leave a mark on our discussions about the Afghan war for some time to come. Countless newspaper narratives will be written on the basis of the Wikileaks reports; scholars will comb through them; and books will be written in whole or in part on the basis of these leaked records. Here I give some reasons to be a little less euphoric.

Before proceeding to the next posts, which will deal fully with the information on Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) in the Afghan War Diary, we need to clear some of the brush surrounding the release and what is contained in these documents overall. Julian Assange clearly believes that the release of these documents will somehow change the course of the war in Afghanistan and help to create a better informed citizenry that is more conscious of the realities of this war. For that, he relies on materials produced by the U.S. military, and that requires that citizens approach these documents with a critical perspective that is already at least partly formed. Others, instead, prefer to denounce the release in advance of knowing what is contained, declaring the American(s) who leaked the reports guilty of treason, and citing those non-Americans involved in its release as enemies of the U.S. That is patriotism and in this instance it is opposed to knowledge. Assange also believes the focus will be on the atrocities committed by U.S. and other NATO forces, and there is substantial evidence of that in these documents.

Which Bastards?

When asked by Larry King on Monday, 26 July, who he meant to call “bastards” when he told Der Spiegel “I enjoy crushing bastards,” Assange specified he meant U.S. forces. Assange must also believe that those studying these documents will not focus as much on the atrocities committed by the Taleban, such as the devastating carnage caused by their IEDs and suicide bombers, and their apparent disregard for the scores of civilians that are killed as a result of going after one target with a massive bomb–The Guardian, with what is arguably the best coverage of the three newspapers to have obtained the documents a month in advance of their public release, has already covered this aspect quite quickly. In these same reports, the Taleban appear to be using hammers to kill mosquitoes. Left at that level of discussion, we have data, but not much understanding–for example, of why the Taleban have nonetheless gained strength and support, or why we may view their deadly attacks as something for which the U.S. and NATO share partial responsibility, for having overthrown and persecuted the Taleban after invading and occupying their country, thereby provoking a hostile and asymmetric reaction. It would be a silly or wicked person who would argue that Afghans have no right to fight back.

While I generally agree with Assange’s sentiments, to the extent that they are knowable, I do not share his optimism about the impact of these documents. Information is not power, and it is not meaning. To make sense of these documents requires interpretation and argumentation that goes beyond and outside the limits of what are, after all, reports reflective of an American optic, produced by combatants. Source criticism and cross checking will be paramount, and to the extent that is not done, Wikileaks may witness members of the public using the same documents to not only bolster the arguments to support continuation of this war, but even an escalation to direct hostilities with Iran (see The Guardian, and see the justified alarm expressed by Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy). There is also debate between The Guardian and The New York Times over the extent to which the reports can be trusted when it comes to Pakistan’s supposed role in aiding the Taleban and conducting covert operations against the government of Afghanistan and western forces–that dispute happened within the first day of reporting on the documents, and disagreement over their credibility did not stop the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan from verbally thrashing each other in public, again within 24 hours of the documents’ release. These reports overall contain enough to hurt those who are critics of U.S. foreign policy, as much as they will hurt those who support it. They contain as much potential for escalating and expanding conflict, as they contain for mobilizing popular support to stop it. I also understand that my commentary here may well be premature, but then so are all the current commentaries.

What Should Matter to Social Scientists?

To bring this discussion closer to the concerns of anthropologists and social scientists generally, there are a few points that I feel need to be made. One concerns the extent to which these records are only a partial selection of all records produced by the U.S. military. That is a significant problem, because we cannot know if the items excluded would in some way modify any conclusions we reach about the records we have. Wikileaks received a total of about 110,000 records, and released about 92,000. It is hard to believe that a period covering six years of war could have produced only this amount. To my knowledge, Julian Assange has not been asked any questions about this issue. We therefore also do not know why these records were included and others excluded. This issue will come up again when I speak about what the records reveal about the workings of the Human Terrain System.

A second problem, and it is a major one, concerns Assange’s assertions that the items were redacted to minimize the risk of harm to the sources indicated in the records. From what we have seen already, just with reference to Human Terrain Teams alone and their sources, that is completely untrue. There is no evidence whatsoever of any kind of redaction. Moreover, when one deletes information for a record, one is supposed to mark the text in some way to say either “name deleted” or “sentence deleted,” etc., and I see no evidence of that. In addition, who comprises Wikileaks’ team of redactors, and on the basis of what knowledge and expertise, as either war fighters, or people with experience and knowledge of Afghanistan, could they make calls about what was “harmless” versus “harmful” information? Which specialists did they consult, and for how long did they have the records to study? Not a word about this, merely bland and general assurances.

Indeed, Assange’s statements about Wikileaks’ “harm minimization process” seem to only focus on the safety of his “bastards,” noting that the documents “do not generally cover top-secret operations” and that they “delayed the release of some 15,000 reports” as “demanded by our source” (source). This is an exchange Assange had with Der Spiegel on this issue:

SPIEGEL: The material contains military secrets and names of sources. By publishing it, aren’t you endangering the lives of international troops and their informants in Afghanistan?

Assange: The Kabul files contain no information related to current troop movements. The source went through their own harm-minimization process and instructed us to conduct our usual review to make sure there was not a significant chance of innocents being negatively affected. We understand the importance of protecting confidential sources, and we understand why it is important to protect certain US and ISAF sources [emphasis added].

SPIEGEL: So what, specifically, did you do to minimize any possible harm?

Assange: We identified cases where there may be a reasonable chance of harm occurring to the innocent. Those records were identified and edited accordingly.

A third problem has to do with source criticism, source confirmation, and Assange’s call for crowdsourcing. Anthropologists should relate to this issue personally. Imagine that someone gets hold of your fieldnotes, and releases a part of them. No analysis, no contextualization, no doubts about the veracity of what an informant told you is in those notes. They are released, and then members of a broad public take hold of their interpretation, and take what is reported as the truth of a situation. Wouldn’t this make you freak out? Are any of our books and journal articles a mere transcription of our fieldnotes? So who is this “crowd” that will make solid arguments from these notes? How will they check their veracity? Do they know who wrote these reports, under what conditions, under what limitations, and with what motivations? Will they travel to Afghanistan and cover the ground covered by these military units? What other documents will they use to confirm these reports, or will they trust them blindly? These are already some of the issues being raised about the alleged Iran-Al Qaeda connection, and Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taleban.

I will stop here, and in the next posts get to the issues of what these records contain when it comes to the work of Human Terrain Teams, what they do not contain, what helps make a positive case for the Human Terrain System, and what may be the worst walloping yet to hit HTS. Indeed, the program managers should be going into serious damage control mode right now and preparing their own public statement, given evidence now in plain view right on this screen. They see it, and they know precisely what we mean.

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22 thoughts on “Wikileaks’ Afghan War Diary: Problems to Note, More to Come on Human Terrain Teams

  1. “A third problem has to do with source criticism, source confirmation, and Assange’s call for crowdsourcing.”

    Ya, this is a really good point. I was looking at some of the coverage of this in the news yesterday, and it was pretty interesting how Fox focused on how these docs relate to Iran and Pakistan, while the BBC was more focused on threats to US national security. The reactions to these docs is going to be like an ideological rorschach, isn’t it?

  2. Good way of putting it, “like an ideological rorschach.” There are at least two possible outcomes that could prove scandalous and deeply damaging to both Assange and Wikileaks. One would be for the Taleban to start executing people named in the reports, and then boast about it. The other would be for the many, sometimes large and popular, right wing bloggers to get over their “this is treason” phase of immaturity and begin to exploit the records to drum up the case for war against Iran, and American troops in Pakistan (to get the job done right). How would Assange feel if these records become a feeding ground for the tea party?

    By the way–and these pages tend to change during the day–I was reading this from
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100728/ap_on_hi_te/afghanistan_wikileaks

    Assange: “If we are talking a threat to individual soldiers … or citizens of the United States, then that is potentially a genuine concern.”

    He seems to be totally oblivious to any concern for the safety of Afghans. Is anyone else noticing that?

  3. Taking advantage of the comments section to post addenda to the article:

    Do The Guardian, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, and Wikileaks even know what is an all of the reports, in order to claim they have done a harm minimization assessment and that Wikileaks redacted the files?

    Assange: “Our groups — the New York Times, Der Spiegel, the Guardian and WikiLeaks — covered about 2,000 reports in detail. The vast majority of this material is going to require soldiers who were there to have a look at it. It’s going to require Afghan refugees to take a look at it. It’s going to require computer programmers and statisticians to take a look at it. We call on the general public to come forward and go to wardiaries.wikileaks.org and tell the local press what you see and tell your local friends what you see.” [emphasis added]

    http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2006789-2,00.html

    When you assert to have carefully reviewed reports and redacted them to reduce potential for harm, it means you cover ALL of them IN DETAIL, not just 2,000 of them.

  4. Maybe as you say the Wikileaks cry out for explanation and context, but their appearance on the public scene has to have a dramatic effect on public opinion. Must we not militate for the release of whistleblower Bradley Manning from his prison in Kuwait, for example? Isn’t there some kind of law protecting whistleblowers?

    Interesting for context is Steve Coll’s book Ghost Wars. History of Pakistan/Afghanistan/CIA/Saudi Arabia/bin Laden from the time of Pakistan’s birth (or Caesarian section) to September 10th 2001.

  5. Personally, I don’t wish to see Bradley Manning get anything less than congratulations–if he is in fact the source of the leaks. Whether there is a law protecting whistle blowers, that would apply to his case, I cannot say. One complicating issue will be this: assuming he is even the source, and we don’t know that…but just for discussion let’s say he is–if his intention was to expose the brutality of the war, did he need to leak all of those documents, many of which are not relevant to, or even potentially harmful to the anti-war cause?

    Then there is this really odd bit of contradiction from Assange: he insists that Wikileaks does not know who the sources are, but we should defend Manning. In general, I would prefer to know who my sources are, and their identity is not irrelevant. It can tell you something about what was leaked and why, and prevent you from becoming a tool in someone else’s game.

  6. Oh f….Here we go, again. Sometimes Obama appears to be very vulnerable to being stigmatized by right wing American media, and does whatever he can to appease them (the rush to fire Sherrod is the latest example). All Fox needs to do now is argue that Obama is soft on terror, because the administration knows of this Iran-Al Qaeda link…thanks Wikileaks ;-)

    I very much hope that, yet again, I will be proven wrong.

  7. Speaking of social science/anthro, has anyone seen the data on religion that the Joshua Project has. It is quite impressive though it is intended for religion conversion. If you get through the propaganda, you find a lot of sources also at the WCIU library link. And to think that HTS was some type of novel concept.

    http://www.joshuaproject.net/index.php

    I agree with Max on Wikileaks.

    My concern is that some items claimed to be leaked are readily available online.

    Wikileaks recent dump is a triumph for the awful mainstream media: Assange has now been blessed by the media/givernment elite.

    Yes, a lot of material I write ends up on Cryptome but that is John Young’s decision whether to post/publish or not. Cryptome has been around a long time and is a great service. I hope John Young has an heir apparent for the project. John’s candor is something I really appreciate as it is so rare these days.

  8. Valid points, one and all. A few of my own:

    – Your thoughts about the danger of the data being used as an argument for the war are not that relevant: every piece of information that could ever be released to the public will always be an “ideological Rorschach”. Although Assange is obviously opposed to many aspects of the war itself, it seems to me that his main goal is to push for larger transparency for its own sake (educating the public so that they can form their own opinions). You seem to feel that Assange will have failed if the case for war gets stronger. I don’t think so.

    – The above does of course make your points about the human cost of this transparency all the more important. If WikiLeaks loses sight of the danger the documents could pose for Afghan citizens who aided the coalition troops, they will have failed the most basic ethics requirements. I’m hearing a lot of conflicting reports about this; in your opinion, are any “collaborators” identified in the data that has been released?

    – In your own comments section you seem to wish for Assange to disclose his sources. You do know that that’s kind of an impossible ask, right? I don’t need to tell you that Mannings chances in court will fall dramatically if the entire world knows that he’s guilty, not to mention the negative effect it will have on future whistleblowers. The identity of sources is not irrelevant, but there’s a very good reason journalists can shield that information from public knowledge.

    – On crowdsourcing: of course every bit of information always has to be contextualized as fully as possible. However, this has to be done by independent experts, which isn’t what happens now: our context is continually being shaped by governments and (media) corporations. I don’t know if a lack of context is preferable to a false context in all cases, but I think we’ve seen quite enough of the latter.

    Thanks for the great article!

  9. I should clarify a couple of points. I do not want Assange to reveal his sources to us…I want him to be aware of who they are. This minimizes the risk of receiving a batch of records that may have been falsified, and it may also tell him something about the motivations behind the intended release.

    It was Assange’s point that the release of these records are to serve the anti-war cause. Otherwise, yes, I too am for as much transparency as may be legitimate and reasonable.

    Yes, collaborators are identified by name, and location.

    Many thanks for your comments, and the strong points you raised.

  10. I spent some hours looking over your last post with the records. I look forward to reading your take on all this. I was over joyed at the news of the leak but I admit that now my feelings are a lot more mixed. What worries me the most is the fate of Afghan collaborators and I’m actually glad your not judging them here.

  11. Thanks Mike.

    No, in fact, it’s not my place to judge them. The anti-imperialism of the non-Afghan is a cultural and historical phenomenon that is separate from that of Afghans. Jamil can speak as an insider, I cannot. I know there are 101 reasons why someone might collaborate, or might pretend to, and under what pressures and constraints from opposing sides. Political anthropology is packed with stories about middlemen, brokers, intermediaries, local chiefs in colonial situations. It is also why I personally cringe any time I hear anyone speaking in serious terms about Hamid Karzai being a puppet. It is far too simplistic, cartoonish, and not respectful of a wide variety of contradictory facts, like the same contradictions he tries to manage (successfully, for him to be in that position for so long). The U.S. may have wanted a puppet, and expected a puppet, but they have clearly been let down.

    The anti-imperialism of the non-Afghans and that of the Afghans mostly coincides in putting an end to the foreign occupation, which is of benefit to both sides for very different reasons. I don’t want to see any Afghan killed, collaborator, guerrilla, whatever–I want to see them left to solve their problems in their way. And they can: they have been ruling themselves for millennia before the U.S. even existed.

    Some will still come away from this saying “Max Forte supports Islamic extremists” –or any of the other idiotic variations proffered by vacuous patriots whose chance for developing a sense of self was probably beaten out of them in childhood, then kept out by drugs and peer pressure, and then replaced by a military sense of self. As I said before, the Bush logic still reigns with too many: you are either with us, or against us. Well, I am definitely against you…but that tells you nothing at all about who I am with. No problem: the right wing knee jerk knows which assumptions to make, and then take as fact. They argue from faith, not facts. The people who are most deluded by American propaganda seem to be Americans themselves…and perhaps Albertans(?). It seems as if blowback is the only blow Americans are capable of delivering in the end.

  12. Ok, each side has its own respective reasons for resisting imperialism. But they come together on more than just getting foreign forces out of Afghanistan, right? What about more global reasons, like fighting US hegemony?

  13. Lile, just skimming for now, I will reach each one carefully later tonight. Important and interesting posts. Many thanks for sharing these, very much appreciated.

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