Special Reports

Officials: WikiLeaks release could hurt Afghan war effort

Kevin Siers, editorial cartoonist at The Charlotte Observer, captured the feelings of many about the importance of the newest WikiLeaks documents. More McClatchy cartoons.
Kevin Siers, editorial cartoonist at The Charlotte Observer, captured the feelings of many about the importance of the newest WikiLeaks documents. More McClatchy cartoons. Kevin Siers / The Charlotte Observer

WASHINGTON — The publication of some 92,000 classified U.S. military reports on the Afghanistan war could complicate the Obama administration's strategy for ending the Taliban-led insurgency by hurting cooperation with Pakistan and throttling the flow of vital ground intelligence, current and former U.S. officials said Monday.

"If people are looking for a reason to not cooperate, this gives them that, not just in Afghanistan, but across the board," warned a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

There was little new information in the massive release of relatively low level documents to the New York Times, Britain's Guardian daily and Germany's Der Spiegel weekly, and intelligence experts said the concern was the fact of the leak and its impact at home and abroad.

Pentagon officials began combing through the materials published on the online WikiLeaks site to assess the damage to the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign.

U.S. officials didn't say to say how WikiLeaks obtained the documents. U.S. officials said anyone with a relatively low secret clearance could have been the source. However, the U.S. Army in May arrested Bradley Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst in Baghdad, and charged him with transmitting classified information.

"It's not the content as much as it is there are names, there are operations; there's logistics, there's sources," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, referring to the fact that WikiLeaks didn't redact names as the three news organizations did. "If somebody is cooperating with the federal government and their name is listed in an action report, I don't think it's a stretch to believe that that could potentially put a group or an individual at great personal risk."

Defense and intelligence experts said that WikiLeaks' decision to publish the names on the Internet could dry up information from tribal leaders, district officials and other Afghans on whom U.S. commanders and intelligence officers rely for information on insurgent activities, political alignments and public attitudes, critical ingredients in a counterinsurgency campaign.

The danger posed to sources could also lead to reduced sharing of intelligence between the United States and other governments with forces in Afghanistan, these experts said. The U.S. shares most intelligence with only a handful of allies, and many allies restrict the sharing their intelligence "take" as well.

"Our government is concerned, obviously, that operational leaks could endanger the lives of our men and women in Afghanistan," Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon told reporters in Ottawa. Some 2,900 Canadian troops are fighting in the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar.

The WikiLeaks disclosure could most damage what cooperation there is with Pakistan's powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which helped the Taliban seize power in Afghanistan in 1996.

Many of the leaked battlefield reports reinforced the long-held contentions of U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence officials that the ISI has secretly aided the Afghan insurgents while officially backing the U.S. drive to crush them.

However, Pakistan remains critical to the U.S.-led effort to defeat the Taliban and al Qaida, whose top leaders are also thought to be in the Pakistani tribal area. The ISI has helped the CIA kill or capture al Qaida operatives in the tribal area and the country's teeming cities, and most U.S. supplies flow through Pakistan into Afghanistan.

U.S. officials said Pakistani cooperation has improved since the 2004-2009 period covered by the leaked documents, aided by the administration's five-year, $7.5 billion civilian aid initiative.

"I'm not going to stand here . . . and tell you that all is well," Gibbs said. "I will tell you that we have made progress in moving this relationship forward."

Publication of the documents comes as Pakistan tries to convince Kabul and Washington to agree to talks with the Taliban and the allied groups.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who's recently made gestures demanded by Islamabad, toughened his stance towards Pakistan Monday even while he alleged that U.S. forces had accidentally killed 52 civilians in southern Helmand province over the weekend.

The documents "clearly support and verify Afghanistan's all-time position that success over terrorism does not come with fighting in Afghan villages, but by targeting its sanctuaries and financial and ideological sources across the borders," Karzai said in a statement. "Our efforts against terrorism will yield no productive results as long as these sanctuaries and sources remain intact."

Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, called the WikiLeaks disclosures "shocking," but said there appeared to be "nothing new" in the documents.

Many U.S. officials and other experts agreed that the documents added little to the overall picture of a nine-year-old war that had claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans and more than 1,900 foreign troops, including 1,207 Americans, and threatens to become a political liability for President Barack Obama.

Even a report by The New York Times that the documents showed that U.S. commanders had concealed the insurgents' use of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles was inaccurate. During an April 2009 conference call with reporters and bloggers, Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary North acknowledged in response to a question that the Taliban use such missiles.

Several Pentagon officials responded to the disclosure with a shrug, saying much of the information was already known and all the documents seemed to be classified at low levels.

"From what we can tell so far, the documents we have seen appear to only be at the secret level," said Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. He added that it will take weeks to complete the review.

The documents appeared to be a fraction of the deluge of as many of 2,000 raw intelligence reports that daily pour in from the field. At this stage, such documents haven't been scrutinized for accuracy or for the reliability of the source, and haven't been "fused" with other sources, such as communications intercepts, experts said.

"There is not a lot new here," said John E. McLaughlin, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies who served as deputy CIA director from 2000 to 2004. "Afghanistan is a struggle. Everybody knows that."

"The impression you get from looking through the summaries is . . . that these are . . . raw source reports, many of which may either be false or represent an agenda that someone has," he said. "Your first question is what motivates (the source). In places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, a swirling mosaic of motives different from anything average Americans has ever experienced in their lives. It's not like reading tea leaves, it's like reading a muddy cup of coffee."

Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief, reacted furiously to numerous documents alleging that he served as a go-between his former agency and the Afghan Taliban, calling the material "a pack of lies, a fairly tale."

He denied having any contact with the Taliban in recent years, although he was happy to voice his moral support for them, charging that the U.S. government released the documents as part of an alleged conspiracy to destabilize Pakistan.

"They (the U.S.) are targeting Pakistan. I'm just the whipping boy," said Gul, who led the agency from 1987-1989. "If a 74-year-old, sitting in a small house in Rawalpindi, is instrumental in defeating the world's biggest power, I don't mind if they say that. But it will put to shame American posterity."

(Shah, a special correspondent, reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. Landay and Youssef reported from Washington. Dion Nissenbaum in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Steven Thomma in Washington contributed to this article.)


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