Steve Coll on the WikiLeaks Afghan War Logs


Steve Coll New America Foundation PBS NewsHour TWN.jpg
(photo credit: PBS NewsHour)
My New America Foundation colleague Steve Coll, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and one of the nation’s leading national security and intelligence experts on Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, appeared on The PBS NewsHour yesterday evening along with NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown and journalist Philip Smucker to discuss the impact and significance of the massive dump of Afghanistan war logs at WikiLeaks.

Feel free to read the entire transcript, but I wanted to draw out Coll’s comments on the war logs. He highlights some key points — including the consequences of ongoing Pakistan ISI support of Taliban operations and the on the ground realities for Afghan citizens that are far removed from whatever noble intentions the US may have there. He cautions that there is much hearsay in the materials.
Two things Steve Coll does not mention which I raise in my own reactions to the WikiLeaks logs in this WNYC Brian Lehrer Show segment are that:

(1) the revelations about civilian deaths which the Pentagon has previously denied responsibility for validates the New America Foundation claims by our colleagues Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann that drone civilian deaths are far higher than what the military was admitting, and
(2) this data doesn’t technically validate “what we already knew” because there has been a battle raging in Washington about what the realities in Afghanistan genuinely are. The debate over Afghanistan policy has largely been fought through public relations scripting heavily influenced by the Pentagon and other advocates or critics who were engaged in similar media skirmishes — far removed from on-the-ground realities in Afghanistan. These Afghan War Logs validate, for the most part, the skeptics of the Afghan War — and undermine those who have argued that an increasingly greater deployment of troops and resources would yield more predictable, constructive security deliverables and roll back the Taliban while stabilizing Karzai’s government.

Here are selected items from the NewsHour transcript:

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Coll, as an overview first, are we learning specific new things here, or is it a matter involve of seeing it in new detail and official documents?
STEVE COLL, president & CEO, New America Foundation: I think it’s more a matter of seeing it in new detail and official documents.
There are bits and pieces and suggestive new evidence about witness reports of ISI collaboration with the Taliban. You mentioned earlier the possibility of new evidence about civilian deaths in special operations raids, and some eyewitness reports about the use of heat-seeking missiles, although I have to say — obviously, I haven’t read all 70,000 documents, but the excerpts that are available — the testimony in some of these documents is hearsay, wouldn’t be courtroom-ready evidence.
These are eyewitness reports that often, in the case of aircraft incidents, turn out to be unreliable. And the testimony about ISI is almost all paid informants who claim to be someplace where the writer of the report wasn’t also present.


JEFFREY BROWN: So, Steve Coll you started by saying some of the caveats that you see in this. What — what is most significant to you in your reading so far?
STEVE COLL: Well, I agree with Philip that there is a preponderance of evidence, even though some of it is tainted and dubious, that reminds us of a historical pattern, which U.S. officials have occasionally commented on, but which they are often are reluctant to be fully honest about, in my opinion, which is that there is no reason to believe that the Pakistani intelligence service has altered its historical collaboration with the Taliban in pursuit of what it imagines to be its national interests in Afghanistan.
At the same time, that government is a major non-NATO ally of the United States in receipt of many hundreds of millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers. It should be unacceptable for the United States to have an ally actively collaborate with militias that are attacking and killing American soldiers. And if these documents raise that question, force it into the light, then I think that is a constructive contribution.


JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Coll, what would you add to that on the heat-seeking missiles?
STEVE COLL: Well, I think that’s — well, I think it’s — the reports that have been excerpted — quote — “eyewitnesses” to the crashing of helicopters apparently struck by missiles, that could well be an indication of the use of Chinese or other missiles.
I just take note, as a journalist who has covered these things for a long time, that the world’s most unreliable witnesses are those that claim to see air disasters from the ground, because it’s just the eye isn’t very reliable. But perhaps there is much richer material than that available.
I actually think that the granular accounts of corruption by the Afghan government at the local level and the toll of civilian casualties in mistaken raids are probably even more significant than — than the rest, because they remind us that this war at the local level is experienced often as one in which neither the Afghan government nor the noble intentions of the United States translate into the experience of ordinary Afghans.


JEFFREY BROWN: What do you make of that, Steve Coll, more detail on those kinds of operations?
STEVE COLL: Well, we have known since 9/11 that much of the Eastern and Southern Afghanistan operations have been turned over to a combination of U.S. special forces and CIA paramilitaries, and that their main mission has been to identify, capture or kill Taliban leaders.
So, I don’t think, in principle, the mission is surprising. I think it’s useful to see it in its specificity, to understand its complexity, the nature of the mistakes that are made, the consequences of those mistakes for the broader strategy of persuading Afghans that the international community is still a constructive partner of their efforts to reclaim their country.
But the basic idea that we’re out there shooting bad guys in Eastern Afghanistan doesn’t strike me as — as new.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Steve Coll, just help our audience here. There is so much more in this, but just help people understand, as someone who has covered the military and intelligence for quite a while, how does something like this even happen, that all of these classified documents become public?
STEVE COLL: Well, obviously, we don’t know. And WikiLeaks isn’t saying. And whatever the three news organizations that partnered with them learned about the origin of the documents, if anything, they’re not disclosing.
I guess we can observe that, after 9/11, one of the criticisms of the intelligence community was that there wasn’t enough sharing and that information, even at fairly low levels of classification, tended to be compartmented into boxes. And we saw, in the run-up to 9/11, examples of how that got in the way of effective investigations and effective action.
And so there was a big push after 9/11 to encourage the intelligence community, through its technology systems and its protocols, to share information and to make it accessible.
It would seem that a single individual — I don’t know whether that will be borne out or not, but somebody had access to quite a lot of documents. It is notable that — the low level of classification. In the world we live in, 90,000 secret documents sounds like a lot, but we don’t actually know the total universe. It could be millions.
And, in any event, most of the — most sensitive operational information in the U.S. system is kept at the top-secret or even more secret, compartmented information level. And there’s, so far as I know, none or not much of that in this batch.

One of the interesting follow-ups on Steve Coll’s last point is to query whether this WikiLeaks trend will begin to reach into the highly compartmentalized, most sensitive national security information treasure chest. There is no answer to that question that isn’t highly speculative — but one would not be off base to think that the WikiLeaks trend toward the disclosure of secrets will likely grow rather than diminish in the period ahead.
— Steve Clemons


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