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

Posted on July 28, 2010 by


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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