First, a freelance reporter brings down America’s top general in Afghanistan with a damning article in the iconic pop-culture Rolling Stone magazine. Now, thousands of classified military documents are published on to the Internet through a website called WikiLeaks allegedly through a US soldier who had a change in conscience.
Both stories have the makings of a future Hollywood film. But most importantly, both stories reveal an Afghan War that is going very wrong. Sadly, coverage in the US, of arguably the two biggest scoops of the year, can only be described as constrained. Most media moguls chose to shy away from the real story.
Michael Hastings article, “the Runaway General” did not turn in to a larger discussion of a failing war like he intended, but became a mission to prove no general is above the civilian leadership in the US.
And now in the WikiLeaks story, instead of focusing on the many war crimes, cover-ups and evidence of an occupation mentality in Afghanistan, most American news networks and publications have seized the opportunity to either berate WikiLeaks for divulging secret information or to point fingers at Pakistan by pulling headlines like, "Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan," and editorials like “Pakistan’s double game.”
And those were just the christening headings given by the New York Times, one of the three news organizations and the only US publication that was given a two-week jump-start to analyse the 92,000 leaked US intelligence reports from the war in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009.
The Guardian, one of the two European papers that was also given early access to the classified documents decided to headline, "Massive leak of secret files exposes truth of occupation".
In a press conference in London, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks said, "I am often asked this question: what is the most single damning revelation, what is the thing that is easily capturable, the single event, the single personality, the single mass killing? But that is not the real story of this material, the real story of the material is that it is war. It is one damn thing, after the other."
The WikiLeaks founder himself focused on the number of civilian casualties cited in the documents and said there is evidence of “war crimes” throughout the reports.
Click for an excerpt of the press conference.
Much in line with Assange's tragic narrative, the leaked documents depict a disturbing fudging of facts and unreported killing of hundreds of civilians. Two incidents in particular have been highlighted by the Guardian.
One involves a group of US marines, who went on a shooting rampage after coming under attack near Jalalabad in 2007. They recorded false information about the incident, in which they actually killed 19 unarmed civilians and wounded another 50.
In another case the same year, documents detail how US special forces dropped six 2,000lb bombs on a compound where they believed a "high-value individual" was hiding, after "ensuring there were no innocent Afghans in the surrounding area". A senior US commander reported that 150 Taliban had been killed. Locals, however, reported that up to 300 civilians had died.
But the NYT chose not to run with these stories as their lead, instead they pulled out the ISI card, in their Editorial “Pakistan's Double Game”.
"...the most alarming of the reports were the ones that described the cynical collusion between Pakistan’s military intelligence service and the Taliban. Despite the billions of dollars the United States has sent in aid to Pakistan since Sept. 11, they offer powerful new evidence that crucial elements of Islamabad’s power structure have been actively helping to direct and support the forces attacking the American-led military coalition…..Americans are increasingly weary of this costly war. If Mr. Obama cannot persuade Islamabad to cut its ties to, and then aggressively fight, the extremists in Pakistan, there is no hope of defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan."
Here's a bit of the Guardian coverage that takes some of the weight off the ISI:
"At least 180 files contain allegations of dirty tricks by the powerful agency with accounts of undercover agents training suicide bombers, bundles of money slipping across the border and covert support for a range of sensational plots including the assassination of President Hamid Karzai, attacks on Nato warplanes and even poisoning western troops' beer supply. But for all their eye-popping details, the intelligence files, which are mostly collated by junior officers relying on informants and Afghan officials, fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity. Most of the reports are vague, filled with incongruent detail, or crudely fabricated. The same characters – famous Taliban commanders, well-known ISI officials – and scenarios repeatedly pop up. And few of the events predicted in the reports subsequently occurred. A retired senior American officer said ground-level reports were considered to be a mixture of “rumours, bullshit and second-hand information” and were weeded out as they passed up the chain of command.”
I can understand why the US is trying to deflect off the greater tragedy that the leaked reports reveal - a failing war that has had its fair share of civilian causalities - especially at a time when the American public is increasingly growing wary of the distant war as they tighten their belts in a weak jobless economy. But I wish they chose a scapegoat other than the Pakistani ISI.
The truth is the ISI is doing what spy agencies do. Their actions are no different from the CIA. The only difference is that the ISI acts in what it perceives to be Pakistan's interest, while the CIA acts in what it perceives to be America's interest.
Now what is American interest? Wiping out the Taliban.
What is Pakistan's interest? Surviving.
Here's the bitter impending truth that Pakistan and the ISI have to deal with. When the US and Nato forces eventually leave Afghanistan, it will not be because all of the Taliban have been wiped out. It will simply be because they just aren’t worth the fight anymore. Most analysts agree that the Taliban are much stronger than they were in 2001. Fighting the allied forces the last nine years has left the tribal warriors better equipped, trained, united and organised. If anything, before bidding farewell to Afghanistan, the US will have captured some big guns among the ranks. The Taliban and their many foot soldiers and commanders will still be around. Karzai’s government, his bureaucracy, police force and Afghan army are not ready (and from the looks of it will never be ready) to deal with the Taliban. The ISI fears the dust from departing US boots would have barely settled before Afghanistan is back in Taliban hands.
And Pakistan will be left with yet another hostile neighbor. So is it really in Pakistan’s interest to alienate and declare an all-out war with the Taliban? By keeping its ties with the saner elements of the Taliban, the ISI is simply trying to prevent a painful déjà vu from the '80s coupled with the possibility of very bitter enemy, on its western border.
The sad thing is the US understands these realities; in fact many elements within the US establishment are for talks with the “good” Taliban. And that is a course the Obama administration has been toying with since it put its new Afghan policy into motion in 2009. The leaked documents only cover incidents up until January 2009, which is before the new Obama policy was put in place. In fact, in an interview with ABC news last year, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State emphasized the need to sort out the real enemy. She said,"not every Taliban is Al Qaeda."
So why put pressure on ISI, when they might just be doing what the US wants them to do in the first place--divide and conquer the Taliban?
Because when push comes to shove, and things start looking bleak in Afghanistan, especially to the American public, the US immediately points its finger at its “ostensible” ally.
Pakistan has become America's favorite scapegoat.
Sahar Habib Ghazi blogs at www.outsideislamabad.com and has been selected as a 2010-2011 Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.