Former special ops squad leader/current think tank fellow Andrew Exum noisily yawns at the WikiLeaks Afghan document release on the New York Times op-ed page today (7/27/10):
The news media have done a good job of showing the public that the Afghan war is a highly complex environment stretching beyond the borders of the fractured country. Often what appears to be a two-way conflict between the government and an insurgency is better described as intertribal rivalry. And often that intertribal rivalry is worsened or overshadowed by the violent trade in drugs.
As it happens, Extra! (12/09) devoted an entire article to the question of how U.S. media have examined the role of interethnic conflict in the Afghan War, and the answer is that by and large they've done a terrible job: Acknowledging that the conflict is largely a civil war between Pashtuns and other ethnic groups does not help the U.S. military sell the war, and so U.S. journalists, following the lead of their Pentagon handlers, barely ever describe it that way. Wrote Robert Naiman in that Extra! piece:
Searching through the Washington Post and the New York Times for the past year, Extra! could not find a single news article that mentioned the idea that Afghanistan was in a state of civil war at any time following the 2001 U.S. invasion–with the exception of the Post article [10/27/09] about [civilian official Matthew] Hoh's resignation.
If the WikiLeaks dump encourages U.S. news outlets to take another look at the war through the civil war prism, that in itself will be a valuable service.
Exum also pooh-poohs WikiLeaks' "documentation of Afghan civilian casualties caused by United States and allied military operations," because "civilians inevitably suffer in war"–ho hum! But perhaps readers conditioned to the "Afghan Casualties Disputed" school of journalism will be nevertheless surprised to read a discussion of how such suffering actually occurs that's informed by the WikiLeaks documents. As the Guardian, which has shown considerably more interest than the Times in the documents' revelations regarding civilian deaths, reported Sunday (7/25/10):
Most of the assaults on civilians recorded here do not appear to have been investigated. French troops "opened fire on a bus that came too close to convoy" near the village of Tangi Kalay outside Kabul on 2 October 2008, according to the logs. They wounded eight children who were in the bus.
Two months later, U.S. troops gunned down a group of bus passengers even more peremptorily, as the logs record.
Patrolling on foot, a Kentucky-based squad from 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, known as "Red Currahee," decided to flag down the approaching bus, so their patrol could cross the road. Before sunrise, a soldier stepped out on to Afghanistan's main highway and raised both hands in the air.
When the bus failed to slow–travelers are often wary of being flagged down in Afghanistan's bandit lands–a trooper raked it with machine-gun fire. They killed four passengers and wounded 11 others.
Stories like this may be old news to an Afghan War vet who researches the conflict for a living–but I suspect that for most people, WikiLeaks' glimpse behind the scenes at how the war is actually fought will be a real eye-opener.