Tens of thousands of classified documents related to the Afghan war released without authorization by the group Wikileaks.org reveal in often excruciating detail the struggles U.S. troops have faced in battling an increasingly potent Taliban force and in working with Pakistani allies who also appear to be helping the Afghan insurgency.
U.S. commanders are learning that victory in today’s wars is less a matter of destroying enemies than of knowing how and when to make them allies.
The more than 91,000 classified documents — most of which consist of low-level field reports — represent one of the largest single disclosures of such information in U.S. history. Wikileaks gave the material to the New York Times, the British newspaper the Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel several weeks ago on the condition that they not be published before Sunday night, when the group released them publicly.
Covering the period from January 2004 through December 2009, when the Obama administration began to deploy more than 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan and announced a new strategy, the documents provide new insights into a period in which the Taliban was gaining strength, Afghan civilians were growing increasingly disillusioned with their government, and U.S. troops in the field often expressed frustration at having to fight a war without sufficient resources.
The documents disclose for the first time that Taliban insurgents appear to have used portable, heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles to shoot down U.S. helicopters. Heat-seeking missiles, which the United States provided to the anti-Soviet Afghan fighters known as mujaheddin in the 1980s, helped inflict heavy losses on the Soviet Union until it withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989.
One report from the spring of 2007 refers to witnesses who saw what appeared to be a heat-seeking missile destroy a CH-47 transport helicopter. The Times first unearthed the document in its review of the files. The Chinook crash killed five Americans, a British citizen and a Canadian. Even though the initial U.S. report stated that the helicopter was “engaged and struck with a missile,” a NATO spokesman suggested that small-arms fire was responsible for bringing down the helicopter.
Although the use of such weapons by the Taliban appears to be very limited, the disclosure that relatively low-tech insurgents had acquired such arms would have fostered the impression that the Afghan war effort was faltering at a time when U.S. fatalities in Iraq were at record levels and the Bush administration was struggling to maintain support for the Iraq war even among its Republican base.
The Obama administration criticized Wikileaks for disclosing the classified documents. “Wikileaks made no effort to contact us about these documents,” national security adviser James Jones said in a statement. “The United States government learned from news organizations that these documents would be posted.”
Senior administration officials acknowledged they had been anxiously awaiting the documents’ release but sought to diminish their significance. “There is not a lot new here for those who have been following developments closely,” one U.S. official said.
Many of the documents posted by Wikileaks suggest that Pakistan’s spy service might be helping Afghan insurgents plan and carry out attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and their Afghan government allies. A few reports also describe cooperation between Pakistani intelligence and fighters aligned with al-Qaeda.
U.S. intelligence concluded a number of years ago that Pakistan retained its ties with Taliban groups, intelligence officials said. Late last year, President Obama warned in a letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari that the United States would no longer put up with the contacts.
But the documents appear to suggest that Pakistan’s spy agency, known as the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate or ISI, might have assisted insurgents in planning some attacks, at least in the past.
The Pakistani government denied the allegations in the classified intelligence documents. “These reports reflect nothing more than single-source comments and rumors, which abound on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and are often proved wrong after deeper examination,” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States.
The documents detail multiple reports of cooperation between retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, who ran ISI in the late 1980s, and Afghan insurgents battling U.S. forces in the mountainous eastern region of the country. In the latter years of the anti-Soviet insurgency, Gul worked closely with several major mujaheddin fighters who currently are battling U.S. troops and trying to topple the Afghan government. The documents also include reports that Gul was trying to reestablish contacts with insurgent leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose fighters have been responsible for some of the bloodiest attacks on U.S. forces.
Over the past decade, U.S. intelligence has collected evidence of direct contacts between ISI and Jalaluddin Haqqani, Hekmatyar and Taliban leader Mohammed Omar. That evidence includes both human intelligence and intercepted communications, officials said.
As the new Afghan war strategy was being formulated late last year, Obama stepped up private pressure on the Pakistanis to sever ties with the Taliban, suggesting that if there wasn’t improvement, the United States would begin to take matters into its own hands.
“The key thing to bear in mind is that the administration is not naive about Pakistan,” an Obama administration official said. “The problem with the Pakistanis is that the more you threaten them, the more they become entrenched and don’t see a path forward with you.”
Most of the voluminous store of classified reports reflects the daily grind of life in Afghanistan as covered in news reports for the past several years. In them, junior officers complain about poorly equipped Afghan forces, corrupt Afghan government officials and a U.S. war effort that at times seemed to be seriously wanting for resources.
In one document, a team of civil affairs soldiers reports donating money for an orphanage that is supposed to help about 100 fatherless children and finding later that only about 30 boys and girls were being helped. Also missing were the stores of rice, grain and cooking oil that the troops had provided. “We found very few orphans living there and could not find most of the HA [humanitarian assistance] we had given them,” the report states.
Other reports give accounts of police chiefs skimming the pay of their patrol officers or placing nonexistent “ghost” troops on their rolls so that they could pocket the additional salaries.
Another report that chronicles a massive Taliban attack on Combat Outpost Keating in eastern Afghanistan quotes frantic radio calls from an overwhelmed U.S. lieutenant seeking air support to hold off the much larger Taliban force. The attack on the base was chronicled in a Washington Post report this year, based on interviews with the officer and his troops.
At times the U.S. troops show a lack of knowledge about Afghanistan, botching the names of cities and the relationships between senior Afghan officials.
The reports highlight how civilian casualties resulting from mistakes on the battlefield have alienated Afghans. Over the past year, civilian casualties in Afghanistan have dropped significantly. But many of the problems referred to in the memo — a resilient Taliban, porous borders with Pakistani safe havens and largely ineffectual Afghan government — remain.