Evidence of War Crimes? Not Really

There is little news to be gathered from the classified Afghan war reports released by WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks on Sunday released some tens of thousands of classified documents and reports relating to the war in Afghanistan. According to the website, these “Afghan War Diaries,” as it has dubbed them, are “the most significant archive about the reality of war to have ever been released during the course of a war.” WikiLeaks’ founder even believes there that is evidence of “war crimes” in these papers. Those who know better are skeptical though.

The White House immediately condemned the leak, worrying that among the documents may be information “that endanger the lives of Americans, our partners, and local populations who cooperate with us.” National Security Advisor and former Marine Corps General James Jones was also quick to point out that the leaked reports covered the period up to December 2009 when President Barack Obama announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, “precisely because of the grave situation that had developed over several years.”

Just what is in the reports? Kings of War has a concise summary:

We learn that that Taliban have acquired better kit than we might have expected (heat-seeking missiles), but given the regional powers who might enjoy or benefit from coalition suffering, we might have already expected this. We learn that special forces hunt down (and kill?) Taliban leaders. I’m not sure why this is news; were we meant to expect them to deliver a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates? The use of UAVs is increasing; well, the technology is developing and efforts have obviously been on reducing coalition casualties. The documents also list […] the so-called ‘blue-on-white’ incidents where civilians were killed. I am certainly not in the camp that easily dismisses such things; each case is deeply tragic, but not unexpected.

In short, the blog concludes that the documents reveal nothing new. As Tom Ricks of Foreign Affairs put it: “I know of more stuff leaked at one good dinner on background.” He refers to Mother Jones where a former defense contractor downplays the significance of the leak.

Most of the documents, notes Adam Weinstein, are military SIGACTS (significant activity reports). “These are theoretically accessible by anyone in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Tampa, Florida-based US Central Command,” he writes, “soldiers and contractors — who have access to the military’s most basic intranet for sensitive data, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet). Literally thousands of people in hundreds of locations could read them, and any one of them could be the source for WikiLeaks’ data.”

In short, these secrets reports aren’t so secret and if there’s truly evidence of war crimes in there, wouldn’t someone have started asking questions a few years ago?

The leaked documents may be interesting from a scholarly point of view but as to actual policy, they shouldn’t have a significant impact. They do not, as Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee believes, “raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Those questions were raised a long time ago. The people who have only come to be aware of them now weren’t paying attention.