Afghan war logs in search of good journalism

“[T]he task of good journalism is to turn this raw material — who, when, where, how, how many — into something that emotionally engages people who can apply levers on decision-making,” said Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at a press conference in London on Monday.

And there’s the rub, since the war logs offer a resource from which an almost unlimited number of stories can be gleaned and to which a disproportionate amount of credibility will be attached for no other reason than that they are based on leaked intelligence reports.

Consider, for instance, one of the latest reports from Danger Room with the headline “WikiLeak: U.S. Battling Militants from Turkey, Its NATO Ally.”

Oh my god, it’s the Turks again! No wonder Israel was alarmed by the approach of the Turk-laden Mavi Marmara.

Spencer Ackerman has been studying reports indicating that Turkish fighters, supported by the al-Qaeda-aligned Haqqani network, may have operated out of militant safe havens in Pakistan.

U.S. troops at the Bermel base, part of Task Force Eagle — a team of five infantry companies and a cavalry troop operating in the area — began to notice in early May 2007 that Turkish fighters south of the base were scoping out how Pashtun insurgents conducted attacks against U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters. On May 19, they struck, sending a 107-millimeter rocket into the base. No one was harmed, and an official assessment noted that the incident was amateurish: “fighters were having a difficult time coordinating and carrying out relatively routine actions leading up to an attack.”

But a military record that day noted something had changed. “Todays [sic] single rocket was the first involvement of Turkish fighters in directly attacking [coalition forces],” it reads, and went on to suspect that the incident was a test run for something more serious down the line.

That report proved to be prescient.

Thus unfolds a tale of a Turkish threat, looming from Pakistan but rooted in a Salafist-Wahhabist movement rising in Turkey — at least, that’s the impression you get from Ackerman’s only source of expert analysis.

“It’s a story that hasn’t been mainstreamed, this Turkish involvement in jihad,” says Bryan Glyn Williams, an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth who’s studied Islamic militancy in Turkey, including Turkish extremist infiltration into Afghanistan. “There is a growing Salafist-Wahhabist movement in Turkey, a lot more extreme than the [ruling Isalmic-based] AK Party.”

Given that the AK Party isn’t extreme at all, that’s a strange contrast to draw.

How reliable a source is Williams? It’s hard to say, but he must have scored points at the CIA last month when he released a study claiming that drone strikes in Pakistan have been far more accurate than previously reported. He says that for every 22 militants killed, there was one civilian casualty. Contrast that with a report in Pakistan’s leading newspaper Dawn last year, which said for “each Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorist killed by US drones, 140 innocent Pakistanis also had to die. Over 90 per cent of those killed in the deadly missile strikes were civilians, claim authorities.”

How did Williams come up with such radically different numbers? The only dead he counted were those whose names were recorded — and note, the brief news reports on the results of drone attacks are not filled with copious detail.

Just in case anyone might think that the Turkish threat to Task Force Eagle in 2007 saw the end of Turkish militant infiltration to Afghanistan, Ackerman warns:

A different report from November 2009 details U.S. forces finding a trove of Turkish cash in a militant compound. (The amount of money isn’t detailed.)

That doesn’t surprise the University of Massachusetts’ Williams. He’s been going to Turkey since the 1990s and has been disturbed to see growing anti-Americanism and sympathy for terrorists on websites like Cihaderi, a phenomenon he says has grown by inches since the 1990s, when Turks went to fight on behalf of Islamic militants in Bosnia and Chechnya. Now, it’s being channeled through Deobandi mosques in tribal Pakistan, where radicalized Turks go as an entrance point “to take shots at Americans and even fellow Turks” fighting for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

How significant is all of this? Who’s to say. If a contingent of 20 or 30 Turks have been fighting alongside the Taliban, might we not ask: so what?

Meanwhile, at The Guardian, Simon Tisdall digs out a story much more prosaic yet a narrative that conveys far more about the war:

Winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan can be uphill work, as US soldiers attached to Task Force Catamount discovered when they visited the remote village of Mamadi in Paktika province, near the Pakistan border.

“It seems to always be this way when we go there. No one wants anything to do with us,” the mission report’s author complained sadly. Nor does the Mamadi patrol’s experience appear to be untypical.

The report, circulated by US military intelligence in April 2007, is one of numerous accounts of attempted bridge-building contained in the classified war logs and examined by The Guardian. The material offers an unprecedented insight into the gaping cultural and societal gulfs encountered by US troops trying to win grassroots support for the west’s vision of a peaceful, developing, united Afghanistan.

The purpose of the Mamadi visit, reassuringly termed a “non-combat event”, was to meet local leaders and distribute food and other assistance. But things started badly when a Humvee broke down, the road turned muddy and the weather deteriorated. To be safe, half the patrol of 29 US servicemen plus Afghan army personnel stayed with the Humvee. The rest went on to Mamadi.

Their reception there is distinctly unenthusiastic. The children mostly stay indoors. The village elder is described as “a very disgruntled man” who does not want American handouts. “He personally blamed George Bush for his AK-47 being taken from him. He doesn’t want us to give stuff to his village because of fear from the enemy punishing him. He did say he would take the money, though,” the report said.

A talk with a 30-year-old male villager with black hair and “skinny” build is similarly uninspiring. “Not very outgoing, [he] sits on the edge of the conversation and just listens to what is going on.” It transpires that the man’s silence may be connected to his prior detention for “involvement with IEDs”. He was sacked by the Afghan army for the same offence.

After a curtailed stay, the patrol hands out 30 sweaters, 30 backpacks, 10 bags of beans and 10 bags of rice then departs. Back at base, the anonymous author reaches a surprising conclusion: “The mission in Mamadi was success.” But this seems to be largely because they fixed the Humvee. “The village of Mamadi is definitely anti-coalition. They want nothing to do with US or ANA [Afghan national army] forces. Nothing further to report.”

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2 thoughts on “Afghan war logs in search of good journalism

  1. zog

    Note also this piece from the WSJ, cherry-picking the Afghan intel grab-bag to fan suspicions of Iran:

    Reports Bolster Suspicion of Iranian Ties to Extremists
    WASHINGTON—Cooperation among Iran, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups is more extensive than previously known to the public, according to details buried in the tens of thousands of military intelligence documents released by an independent group Sunday.
    U.S. officials and Middle East analysts said some of the most explosive information contained in the WikiLeaks documents detail Iran’s alleged ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the facilitating role Tehran may have played in providing arms from sources as varied as North Korea and Algeria.
    The officials have for years received reports of Iran smuggling arms to the Taliban. The WikiLeaks documents, however, appear to give new evidence of direct contacts between Iranian officials and the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s senior leadership. It also outlines Iran’s alleged role in brokering arms deals between North Korea and Pakistan-based militants, particularly militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and al Qaeda.
    WikiLeaks released a cache of intelligence documents Sunday that detail raw intelligence reports over a five-year period. The information is fragmentary, and its not known how many reports were corroborated by other sources. “Some parts are more believable than others, but this sort of raw stuff could be gold or a dud,” said a senior U.S. official working on both Pakistan and Iran.
    The apparent links are striking because Iran has historically been a foe of the Taliban, who generally view the followers of Shiite Islam—Iran’s predominant faith—as heretics.
    The Iranian mission to the United Nations condemned the allegations of ties to extremists. “Any allegation about any collaboration or relation between Taliban and al Qaeda is absolutely false and baseless,” a spokesman said.
    In recent years the Taliban toned down their sectarian rhetoric and reached out to Iran, pledging friendly relations with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors should they return to power. Iran has long called for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan.
    One of the more remarkable reports describes a November 2005 trip that departed from Iran in which Mr. Hekmatyar, the militant leader, and Osama bin Laden’s financial adviser traveled to North Korea to close a deal with the North Korean government to obtain remote-controlled rockets to use against coalition aircraft in Afghanistan.
    “The shipment of said weapons is expected shortly after the new year,” the report said.
    Several reports describe Iran as a hub of planning activity for attacks on the Afghan government. A May 2006 report describes an al Qaeda–Hekmatyar plot to equip suicide bombers and car bombs to attack Afghan government and international targets—using cars and equipment obtained in Iran and Pakistan.
    By April 2007, the reports show what appears to be even closer collaboration. A report that month describes an effort two months earlier in which al Qaeda, “helped by Iran,” bought 72 air-to-air missiles from Algeria and hid them in Zahedan, Iran, in order to later smuggle them into Afghanistan.
    Mr. Hekmatyar, the leader of Afghanistan’s Hezb-i-Islami insurgent group, lived in exile in Tehran when the Taliban governed Kabul. He resettled on the Afghan–Pakistani border after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and established a tenuous alliance with the Taliban and al Qaeda. More recently, he sent a delegation to Kabul to negotiate a peace deal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.N.
    Some reports highlight the political sensitivities Afghanistan is trying to balance between its chief backer, the U.S., and its neighbor to the west.
    An April 2007 memo notes that the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants to “keep the issue of the Iranian-made weapons recently found in Kandahar under the radar screen in the lead up to the June visit of the Iranian President to Afghanistan” because Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to avoid “additional friction with Afghanistan’s neighbors.”
    Several reports provide new details of the extent of Iran’s reach, including apparent payments to kill some Afghan officials and attempts to buy others off.
    A report from 2005 describes Iran offering compensation of between $1,700 and $3,400 to a group of former Afghan government officials and Taliban members residing in Iran to kill soldiers and Afghan government officials.
    Another report two years later shows growing U.S. concern about Iran meddling, including reports from Afghan officials that Iran paid a total of $4 million to as many as 90 members of the Afghan parliament. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said, however, it found members of parliament were more motivated to support Iran because of local issues, such as the Afghan government’s “poor performance on the issue of Afghans deported from Iran.”
    In September 2009, reports continue of Taliban fighters using Iranian-made rocket-propelled grenades to successfully shoot down helicopters belonging to coalition forces. As proof, the report says, “the RPG launcher had markings in Persian Farsi that read//made in Iran//.”
    Some of the plots described in the memos stretch credulity, such as one from February 2007 describing U.S. reports that Iran has supplied the Taliban with poison that can be slipped into the food or tea of government officials.
    —Yaroslav Trofimov contributed to this article.

  2. Christopher Hoare

    Dear me, Iran is ‘meddling’ in its neighbour Afghanistan. Is it forbidden for one country to have contacts with the people on its borders? I suppose it must be a crime if the US designates it as such. It is only the immediate neighbours of Afghanistan who have a legitimate right to influence its future. If the US is frightened of more assaults in NY it had better keep a close eye on Hamburg.

    And what about the Taliban having 72 air-to-air missiles from Algeria? What do they launch them from — flying carpets?

    Since these ‘intelligence’ reports can be used to build up any crack-brained threat your heart desires, it says volumes about the US policy founded upon such data.

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