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Secret reports posted by WikiLeaks paint grim portrait of Afghan war

Update | 5:42 p.m. Need to Know has posted video of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs condemning the release of the secret military records, and of Julian Assange, the elusive founder of WikiLeaks, defending his decision at a press conference in London earlier today.

Update | 12:48 p.m. Need to Know is asking readers to help us comb through the WikiLeaks database.

A trove of more than 91,000 confidential military documents obtained by a whistle-blower organization and released online Sunday paints a nuanced and, in many cases, decidedly bleak portrait of the war in Afghanistan, and reveals several new details about attempts by coalition forces to quell violence there and turn back the stubborn Taliban insurgency.

The documents, made available by an organization called WikiLeaks, provide what is known as “raw intelligence” from commanders on the ground, and in many cases the records recount relatively mundane details and rumors based on sketchy intelligence. But there are also some potentially explosive revelations contained within the cache of documents, including new information regarding the existence of a secret U.S. assassination squad, Task Force 373, and accounts of corruption and reconstruction activity across Afghanistan.

“This archive shows the vast range of small tragedies that are almost never reported by the press but which account for the overwhelming majority of deaths and injuries resulting from the war,” said a statement posted on the WikiLeaks website. “We hope the impact will lead to a comprehensive understanding of the war in Afghanistan and modern warfare in general.”

A cursory review of the data, which has been posted online, reveals an unvarnished and considerably more complex portrait of the war effort than U.S. officials have publicly maintained. There are also the grim details of life in a war zone. One report tersely describes the arrest of three kidnappers attempting to illegally transport children aged 12 to 17 from Afghanistan to Iran. Another recounts the detainment of an Afghan government employee caught shuttling five “anti-vehicle IEDs,” or improvised explosive devices, the most common insurgent weapon used against coalition forces.

The reports also provide a rare on-the-ground glimpse into the challenges facing U.S. and Afghan officials trying to consolidate security gains by rebuilding the country’s tattered infrastructure. Many of the documents detail meetings with regional government officials on development efforts, and in memo after memo, local officials express concern over the pace and effectiveness of reconstruction projects.  A 2008 report on a meeting regarding security in Panjshir province, home primarily to the minority Tajik tribe, describes concern among Afghan officials about the lack of jobs in the region, which the officials feared could lead to increased resistance.

“Unemployment seems to be of great concern with respect to security. Feeling is that if people are employed there will be less inducement to rebel against ISAF personnel,” the report said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led military coalition in Afghanistan. “While the projects contracted for by the [Provincial Reconstruction Team] are employment opportunities, they are temporary at best. The need exists for some type of more permanent employment, whether it is manufacturing or more productive agricultural capabilities.”

As The New York Times noted in its review of the documents, U.S. and Afghan security officials also reveal a deep suspicion of Pakistani influence in the country and frustration with Pakistan’s resistance to Afghan and U.S. security measures in the lawless regions along the Afghan-Pakistan border. In some of the memos, officials even go so far as to suggest that the Pakistani intelligence service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, has actively guided the Taliban insurgency and helped the rebels plot attacks against Afghan leaders.

Frustrations with Pakistani officials are also readily apparent in the documents. In the same 2008 memo on security in Panjshir province, for example, an official from the Afghan National Directorate of Security complains that Pakistan’s reluctance to fight militant groups in the regions along the Afghan border has hurt counterinsurgency efforts there. The official also dismissed Pakistani claims that insurgents in the country’s tribal regions along the Afghanistan border were actually agents of the Afghan government.

“NDS Chief believes Pakistan should listen to the International community with regard to fighting terrorism,” the report said. “The roadblocks Pakistan has put in the way of attacking known terrorist locations within the border region have come back to haunt them. Pakistan’s claim that those responsible for terrorist acts in Pakistan are Afghan Govt pawns is farfetched.  He believes any time a border country has difficulty maintaining order, it will eventually spill over into the surrounding areas.”

In a statement released on Sunday, the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, denounced the release of the documents as irresponsible and said they could jeopardize joint efforts by the Afghan and Pakistani governments to fight terrorism and stem the violence in the border regions between the two countries. Haqqani also dismissed the documents as misleading because they were “unprocessed” reports from the ground, sometimes based on rumor and almost always unvetted by senior military officials.

“The documents circulated by Wikileaks do not reflect the current onground realities,” Haqqani said in a statement, according to Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper. “The United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan are strategic partners and are jointly endeavoring to defeat Al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies militarily and politically.”

The White House also strongly condemned the release of the documents, saying they could undermine security operations in Afghanistan and put the lives of military personnel and coalition partners at risk. Gen. James Jones, the National Security Adviser, said the documents covered a period of time from January 2004 to December 2009, before President Obama announced a shift in strategy in Afghanistan designed to address the challenges facing U.S. and international forces there.

“The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security,” Jones said in a statement. “These irresponsible leaks will not impact our ongoing commitment to deepen our partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan; to defeat our common enemies; and to support the aspirations of the Afghan and Pakistani people.”