Thursday, July 29, 2010

Going For A Leak

I have such mixed emotions about the WikiLeaks expose of the Afghan War Diaries and so many strands of thought that I want to pursue that this is going to be a difficult post. But I'm going to try and present at least some of them in as coherent a manner as I can. I hope you will bear with me. For my own sake (and probably for readers' sake as well) I will break up the different strands with sub-heads.

Is The WikiLeaks Expose A Good Thing?

Generally, yes. Any puncturing of the facade of unaccountable power is a great thing in my book. But particularly when it involves exposing the reality of a conflict that very few outside the conflict zone have even a basic understanding of, it is invaluable. We are fed so many lies by governments and the hand-in-glove media that narratives that challenge those fabrications and lead to questioning among the public are the only way to challenge that hegemony.

However. There are a couple of things which also bother me about the recent leak of apparently over 92,000 previously secret files. The first is based on taking the leaks at face value. As most of us know by now, the secret documents are mostly raw field intelligence reports, that is they are the reports filed by Western soldiers on the frontline reporting incidents, interactions and intelligence culled from various sources. These were meant to be internal documents for their superior officers. Not only do they reflect the competence and biases of the soldiers writing them up as well as contain cover-ups (after all, soldiers don't want anything bad to reflect on themselves in front of superiors), they have not been verified, double-checked or passed up through a filtration process that assesses their credibility via other sources. So, yes, there is a vicarious thrill to seeing what things are like for soldiers on the frontline or how a military operates in such a situation, and there may be very useful information to be gleaned from them, but in and of themselves, they are not terribly helpful for the average reader to understand what is actually going on. Readers who take these reports at face value - as most readers are tending to do - are likely to mire themselves further in the "fog of war" rather than cut through it, to paraphrase Mahir Ali in Dawn today.

As a parallel, imagine for a moment having access to an investigative reporter's notebook that details every observation, every possible lead, every interview, every hunch, every rumour or remark heard. Many of these leads, hunches and rumours could be simply false and not all observations, interviews and overheard remarks are helpful in clarifying the story. Now imagine having access to the notebooks of thousands of reporters working on the same story and believing everything as true. That is the danger of treating these documents as gospel, just because they were classified as secret and have now been leaked.

Julian Assange: mystery man

The second thing that makes me uneasy is WikiLeaks itself. I know this will probably sound terribly conspiratorial, but I cannot say with 100 percent surety that it is not all part of some grand psy-ops strategy: you know, build up an institution with calculated cred boosters (e.g. the leaked Iraq helicopter footage) and then use it to release info you want to release. It's not like it has never been done before, although of course never on a global level. Okay, I know I'm probably sounding like a nutter now but bear with me. Yes, I've read the wonderful profile of maverick Julian Assange (the driving force behind WikiLeaks) in The New Yorker, but I never quite understood the over-dramatized cloak and dagger stuff. Are we really being asked to believe that a man as publicly recognizable as Assange, who jets from continent to continent, can escape being tracked by international security agencies? Or that WikiLeaks, which claims to run entirely on donations (including credit card donations), does not have a single bank account or money transfer that is trace-able? Really?

Ok, forget my questions about WikiLeaks. Is it really beyond the realm of possibility for WikiLeaks and Assange, no matter how pure of heart they are, to be used by psy-op warriors wanting to put certain things out in the public realm? Are we really being asked to believe that 92,000 plus secret documents can be easily smuggled out of the Pentagon (on a Lady GaGa CD, no less, if some reports are to be believed) without anyone having any inkling? Anything is possible I guess but the probability on the other hand is a different matter.

Forgive me for being a doubting Thomas and slightly cynical. But these are the reasons I would not take the leaks at face value even as I accept the mining of the data for useful information. I hope my doubts about WikiLeaks are misplaced though.

Do We Learn Anything New in the Leaks?

I guess the answer to this depends on how much you know of Afghanistan and how much you have followed the story of the conflict there. For most old hands, there is nothing sensationally new in the documents (at least from what has come to light so far). But you do get a lot of details and a very good idea of the way much of them are covered up. For example, the number of attacks on Coalition Forces (CF) and the far larger number of civilian casualties than have been reported previously. Or the almost comic attempts of American soldiers to win hearts and minds among the local populace. And most of all you understand in the minutae why this conflict will end unsuccessfully for the US.

Is This The Smoking Gun Against Pakistan?

In one word, no. The allegations against Pakistan's military establishment for playing a double game in Afghanistan may well be true (I will come back to this later) but these documents do not prove it. At best they remain allegations. Most of the documents detailing the ISI's backing for the Taliban are, as already pointed out, based on questionable intelligence sources, either Afghan intelligence operatives (who have well known hostility to the ISI) or paid informers (who have a vested interest in selling sensational stories). Some of them are plainly laughable, such as the alleged ISI plan to poison Western forces' beer supplies. According to the intel, the alcohol was going to be purchased from Miranshah in Waziristan - yeah, right! - and Peshawar, mixed with poison and then airdropped and trucked into Afghanistan for Coalition Forces to consume (it would seem from this that the CF are quite keen on the FATAbrau brand and short of their Budweisers).

One of the most respected Afghanistan experts and a former European Union deputy head of mission in Afghanistan, Michael Semple, had this assessment to make about the reports in The Guardian (by far the most level-headed assessment I have read so far in the Western press and certainly worth reading in its entirety):

"Although most of Afghanistan's trade comes through Pakistan and Pakistan was the main place of refuge for Afghan refugees during the 1980s, the most popular way of establishing credentials as an Afghan nationalist has long been to denounce Pakistan as the enemy.
Among the 180 reports of ISI interference, most are drawn from informants or briefings from the Afghan intelligence service, who describe in lurid detail direct involvement of ISI officers in trying to wreak havoc inside Afghanistan. The bulk of them can now be dismissed as unreliable either with the benefit of hindsight (they warn of impending disasters which never happened) or on the basis of implausibility (conveying details the source could not have known) and because they fit in with a pattern of disinformation (stories constructed from recurrent themes and familiar characters).
One set of informants most likely passed on these reports because they found there was a market for them. More politically motivated informants, such as those Afghan officials who supplied briefings which US personnel later wrote up as intelligence, probably wanted to strengthen US backing by turning the US against Pakistan."

It is important to reiterate that most of these intel reports have not been been verified or confirmed as correct. The one exception to this (as far as I can tell so far) may be a Polish intelligence report about an allegedly ISI-backed impending attack on the Indian consulate in Kabul a week before it happened. That intel was apparently corroborated by US intercepts of communication, which were presented to the Pakistan government by the CIA Deputy Head Stephen Kappes.

Which brings me back to the issue of whether the ISI (or at least elements within it) really is involved in backing the Taliban in Afghanistan. There has been enough chatter around the issue for one to believe that there may be some kernel of truth to the matter. I have no proof and none has been conclusively presented but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to support the thesis - after all, could the insurgency succeed without backing from any quarters in Pakistan? But putting your realpolitik hat on, try and think about it slightly differently. There are two questions:

Q1. Is the ISI's double-game directed against the US or against India, whose influence it is trying to counter in Afghanistan? I am no fan of the ISI and its shenanigans but given the mindset of the Pakistan army and the agency's mandate, would it not be completely understandable for it to work to undermine Indian influence on Pakistan's western flank? And who would be a more logical partner than the opposition to the government that it believes is completely in India's pocket? And it's not as if Indian intelligence agencies do not have their own goals in Afghanistan and have not actively pursued the objective of marginalizing Pakistan's interests in the country. Now, you may argue that the problem is that by using the Taliban to undermine Indian influence, the ISI would necessarily be pitting itself against US interests as well. And you may be right. But I am willing to bet (if this hypothesis is true) that the ISI believes it can limit the fallout - it would probably be as wrong as it has been in the past with such things but it would still believe it.

Q2. In strategic terms, is Pakistan hedging its bets vis a vis the Taliban, so entirely shocking? Given past history of US involvement in the region, given how badly the US war in Afghanistan has gone, given the history of broken promises regarding safeguarding Pakistani interests in the region (vis a vis India) and given the increasing domestic pressure in the US to pull out, is it entirely surprising if Pakistan should? Especially if it feels the US will eventually leave behind a mess like the last time it pulled out? Especially if it fears that once the US forces move out, it will have to confront hostile neighbours on both sides?

Now, I should clarify that I would be the last person you would think of as a Taliban supporter. I am merely attempting to argue within the security state paradigm, the way the military probably is thinking about this. It's not something I like (because of what the Taliban represent and what the other repercussions would be on Pakistan) but given the geostrategic imperatives of the region, it is something I can almost understand.

The biggest irony about the WikiLeaks saga is that while the documents may not have provided any smoking gun of Pakistani backing for the Taliban, the dismay in Western (particularly US) audiences over the failing war effort will almost surely lead to increasing pressure on their governments to pull out forces sooner rather than later...which would help entrench Pakistani military opinion that backing the Taliban is the sensible thing to do, as an insurance policy for the coming mess.

We are screwed either way.

So, Why The Inordinate Focus On Pakistan?

I wanted to end this post with my assessment of the possible game plan around the leaks. Particularly a comparison of how a marginal media player such as The Guardian has presented the findings as opposed to the major media player, The New York Times, since the two vastly different takes tell us a lot about the stakes involved. Plus how the issue has been dealt with by other media players in interested areas such as India. But this post is already too long and I am completely exhausted. So I will defer this portion for another separate post (or perhaps an update on this one) when I am slightly refreshed. Till then.


tlw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tlw said...

I like the way you compared these raw intelligence reports to those of an investigative reporter's diary. When you mentioned Psy-Ops (a field Pakistanis are a little too familiar with, and foreign reporters pretend as if they're not) I was reminded of how journalism and espionage have something of a similar approach. Both try to collect politically sensitive information. Except journalists try to release it to a wider audience, whereas spies try to keep it covered. Relating this to wikileaks, Julian Assange (who I have to admit strikes me as a bit of a weirdo) has tried to tout his agency, oops, organisation as "the intelligence agency of the people". Big ego, eh?

And just to keep the conspiracy pot boiling, there's an older, more venerable anti-secrecy website that has hurled abuse at wikileaks since it came out, muttering angrily about it being to interested in marketing itself, and less interested in releasing all the info it comes across. Wikileaks on its part has treated that website the way one might treat a cantankerous uncle. With distant and apologetic respect.

Julian Assange the (ex?) hacker behind Wikileaks though, is a man who for the internet age is very, very secretive, and it must be said must have many subplots in his life that he doesn't want investigated. I believe this man should be further looked into.

hemlock said...

dude, excellent post.

there's been so much hype created around the "leaks" it maakes you wonder. and when i read up a bit i too was like, hang on, 90,000 docs stolen/saved/downloaded/uploaded and no one was looking? it possibly cannot be a one man job. and if a whole bunch of people are involved, is it actually a "leak" or a preamble for the US pulling out of afghanistan under the pretext of security of its soldiers.

but then i sounded like a conspiracy-theory-weaving-pakistani to myself and discarded the idea and decided to naively believe everything i read.

Anonymous said...

very objective analysis ... I am becoming fan of you for all your obejctivity, a rare thing in Pakistani media.