Journalism in the Public Interest

A Reading List to Put the WikiLeaks ‘War Logs’ in Context

The WikiLeaks documents on the war in Afghanistan provide a closer look at Pakistan, civilian casualities and other long-building issues.


Australian founder of whistleblowing website, 'WikiLeaks', Julian Assange, holds up a copy of today's Guardian newspaper during a press conference in London on July 26, 2010. (LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

This morning, The New York Times, England’s The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel published reports on what’s been termed the “War Logs”—nearly 92,000 documents about the war in Afghanistan made public by WikiLeaks. To put the leaked documents in context, we pulled together some of the best, past reporting on the main themes in the reports.

Pakistan’s influence on Afghanistan

The documents suggest that Pakistan’s intelligence service has been aiding the Taliban and the Afghan insurgency. (See some of the documents here.) At the heart of this debate is the question Dexter Filkins posed in his Pulitzer-Prize winning coverage in late 2007: “Whose side is Pakistan really on?”

Much of the reporting on this issue centers on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Taliban warlords and Al Qaeda have a strong base. A “Frontline” documentary from 2006 looked at those groups’ presence in the Waziristan region, and how the Taliban there received assistance from the Pakistan intelligence service. Later, The New York Times’ David Rohde detailed the inner workings of the Taliban in the region in his account of his kidnapping in 2009, when he was taken over the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Further south in Pakistan, the Taliban has grown in Quetta, where, as Carlotta Gall wrote in 2007, there were signs that “Pakistani authorities are encouraging the insurgents, if not sponsoring them.”

For more analysis, in a 2008 Q&A with Harpers, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid explained that the roots of Pakistan’s covert support for the Taliban solidified when the U.S. focused on hunting down Al Qaeda after Sept. 11, leaving the Taliban free to develop in Pakistan. Now, the New Yorker’s Steve Coll says Pakistan’s military believes that Islamic militias could be “useful proxies to ward off a perceived existential threat from India.”

One particular member of Pakistan’s intelligence agency frequently appeared in the WikiLeaks documents. According to the documents, the agency’s former director, Hamid Gul, has strong connections with the Taliban and has been supporting the Afghan insurgency. The Washington Post’s Candace Rondeaux profiled Gul last year, when he was implicated in the bombings in Mumbai.

Civilian casualties

From the beginning of the war, press reports have drawn attention to civilian deaths resulting from U.S. and NATO strikes in Afghanistan. One Washington Post report from October 2001 noted growing concern among Afghans over errant airstrikes, saying locals were beginning to view Americans as just another in the long line of invaders that had come through the country.

Just months later, The New York Times reported that American attacks had already killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghan civilians. The story line was much the same in 2007, when the Times reported that civilian deaths were causing divisions within NATO and undermining support for the Afghan government. The reports range far and wide, but below is a sampling of some of the most devastating attacks in recent years.

  • In April 2007, Marines opened fire on unarmed civilians and killed 10 people, wounding more than 30 others. The Washington Post reported it was “one of the largest” civilian death tolls since the war had begun.
  • In August 2008, the Post noted that increased reliance on airstrikes had led to more civilian deaths, including one attack that killed at least 90 innocent Afghans.
  • In an incident highlighted in the Times’ coverage of the WikiLeaks documents, NATO bombs targeted a couple of hijacked fuel tankers and killed more than 100 people in Kunduz Province last September. At the time, The Washington Post reported that at least a dozen of the victims were civilians. The leaked documents show the military concluded the strike had killed 56 people, none of them insurgents.
  • Today, the Times reported that a NATO strike in Helmand Province killed 52 people, according to Afghan officials. American military officials did not deny the report, but said it was premature to reach any conclusions.

Secret commandos

The Times reports that the leaked documents also include details on secret commando raids, citing notable successes but also increased civilian casualties from the operations. In February of last year, the paper detailed just such a raid, in which bearded American and Afghan forces kicked open the door to one man’s house. The story recounts how Syed Mohammed was taken from his home by the commandos and interrogated for several hours before being released:

“When he returned home, Mr. Mohammed said, he went next door to his son’s house, only to find that most of his family had been killed: the son, Nurallah, and his pregnant wife and two of his sons, Abdul Basit, age 1, and Mohammed, 2. Only Mr. Mohammed’s 4-year-old grandson, Zarqawi, survived.”

A month later, the Times was reporting that the military had temporarily halted such raids after media coverage and a U.N. report that singled out the secret missions for contributing to a rising civilian death toll.

Unmanned drones

The Times says the documents show that drone aircraft have not been as “impressive” as they are typically portrayed. “Some crash or collide, forcing American troops to undertake risky retrieval missions before the Taliban can claim the drone’s weaponry,” the Times writes. The documents mention one situation of a drone that went “rogue” and eventually had to be shot down by a fighter jet before it crossed out of Afghan territory.

The drones have become an increasingly popular tool for the military. Because they’re operated off-site, in theory they reduce casualties for U.S. troops. NPR and “60 Minutes” each went inside the Nevada headquarters of the Army’s drone operations, where pilots use remote controls to fly and monitor the drones. They use satellites and a camera mounted inside to be the eyes of the drone, which NPR said was like “seeing the world through a soda straw.”

The drones are gaining popularity not only with the Army, but with the CIA as well. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer looked at the how the CIA’s increased dependence on drones represent “a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force.”

Thanks to ProPublica for taking the time to look at some of the documents.  As I am willing to bet a nickel that this release will be in the “hyper-spin” cycle, it is great that there is an independent group willing to take on the herculean task of looking at 92K pages.

Gunther Steinberg

July 26, 2010, 4:28 p.m.

The landlocked geography, the Pakistan sponsorship of the Taliban,their competition with India on influence in Afghanistan have all been major factors in the inability to win of the conflict there.
      The only safe access we have to Kabul is by air, all other routes are continually interdicted by hostiles. Supplying our troops is much worse than Vietnam. The “surge” depends on an endless train of flights, a couple of companies at a time. - When the Taliban gain access to anti-aircraft missiles, it will be the end, just as it was for the Russians.
  A major war there was a stupid idea, which the Pentagon did not have the guts to oppose strongly.

TheTaliban already have access to heat seeking, shoulder fired birds similar to the Stingers we supplied them with to combat the Russians.  The US foreign policy of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” has been backfiring since 1945.
As far as I’m concerned, the only justification for the war in Afghanistan is the same as my war in Vietnem.  “War is good business, invest your son, or daughter, mom, dad, etc”

I follow the news and I hadn’t heard of many of these incidents (prob. buried on back pages), so I guess we could use some more Wikileaks.

As far as I’m concerned (military-5 years) the past three administrations all belong in jail or before the international court of justice for war crimes….oops,...mistake.  The past four going back to Reagan.

Time to leave Afghanistan. It’s their country let them run it the way they want to.

Bring our troops home. Iraq too.

It’s just so ugly, isn’t it?  And when will it ever end?  When the national treasury’s wealth is transfered to a few ubber-corporations? I don’t think this madness will ever end.  This isn’t about national security, well, if you put OIL into that category that’s probably the only real reason for this whole farce continues.  Our armed forces are being used as a mercenary force to protect our OIL interests in that region.  Don’t pretend otherwise…..

Having served in a covert position in the last fiasco in SE Asia,I can assure all that these are just the tip of the iceberg and completely agree with the previous poster;Bert C.except we need to go back further t5han he suggests but sadly many of those who condoned these actions are dead,hopefully meeting a beter form of justice!

It is interesting to note that the chief financier of fundamentalist Islam (including the Taiban) is our ally, Saudi Arabia.  It also is of note that our ally Pakistan
is supplying much support to the Taliban. 

Isn’t great to have allies like this?  Maybe we invaded the wrong country.

I want to agree with other(s) - great work!  And, I want to thank Amanda M., from HuffingtonPost, now You, for suggesting to me to try  You/ have a great person/worker/author/womyn with Amanda.


Thanks for this very useful review of past reporting efforts. Reading down the list, I’m proud to say that I recall reading or experiencing nearly all of them, but prouder still that correspondents from the Times, the Post, McClatchy (don’t forget their great work) and the New Yorker have been consistently on the job - our eyes and ears. And of course ProPublica, who is ushering a new era of reporting tools that make disseminating and crowdsourcing analysis possible. Despite the ‘lamestream’ media bunkum, these best representatives of the MSM (and the ever-increasing ranks of alternative media too) have never performed better.

Sundai Balander

July 27, 2010, 8:56 a.m.

Why is no one pushing for a repeal of executitve priveledge to pardon wrongdoers and suppression of full disclosure of their actions. Each successive administration declines prosecution of previous seat holders crimes thereby assuring their own crimes and failings will garner no retribution. This right of passage should be revoked in it’s entirety, DO THE CRIME, DO THE TIME. Where is the incentive to follow the LAW when you are exempt from it? RULE OF LAW?....... LAW OF RULE is our policy.

I’ve been avidly following Julian Asange’s brave and heroic exploits for some time now. Several months ago, when the Apache leak was first attributed to Cpl. Bradley Manning, he was arrested and Julian forced to go into hiding to avoid arrest and possible “decapitation” by U.S. black-op forces, I immediately wired monies to Wikileak to assist them and Julian in whatever way to protect themselves. I now highly recommend that everyone who cares about ending this vile war likewise do the same. Julian and Wikileak needs now a massive outpouring of support akin to that time when millions from around the world inititally took to the streets to object to America’s then illegal war against Iraq.

Now is the time to stop, once and for all, the idionic politices of the Obama administration and American war machine.

Ronald Babcock

July 27, 2010, 11:46 a.m.

To me this was already well known.  Former CIA operatives and others have written book on the subject, such as James Risens, Jane Mayers, Bob Woodward, and Robert Baer.
Most of the books came out during the Bush Administration.

If I was a reporter i would be going through these thousands of documents looking for useful information, not turning my nose in the air after seeing a few highlights and deeming them “unimportant.”

Gordon Topham

July 27, 2010, 2:20 p.m.

We need to detach our forces from this unwinable war as soon as possible.  Our leaving may bring about terribel consequences for our supporters but there is no way we can win this war.

Two more botched wars (Iraq & Afganisthan). But what to do now? Watch the movei “Hurt Locker” and you know the US cannot re-patriate their soldiers as they will have the same problem at home they had after Vietnam: a whole lot of unemployed, mentally scarred ex-soldiers who only know how to handle guns!
Let’s be realistic - albeit cynical: the US will ahev to continue with these wars or find new ones!

It’s great that Propublica brings its readers attention to those stories in the media which have highlighted botched operations and civilian casualties in Afghanistan and to some extent our difficult arrangements with Pakistan.  However, through-out the course of the war the record of the American media in covering this side of the story has been largely inadequate.

Anthony Dimaggio, using lexus-nexus, documents this poor record in “When The Media Goes to War”, concluding that

“U.S media outlets provide a charitable reading of U.S. foreign policy while largely disregarding those assessments that substantively challenge U.S. actions in Iraq,  Iran,  Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  No conspiracy is at work here;  rather, reporters simply see the world through the same lens a political leaders.”

Such challenges appear frequently in Europe and the rest of the world. In reality, the Wikileaks documents simply provide information that is widely available not only in the foreign press but on the new bookshelves of your local public library.

I would recommend “The Most Dangerous Place; Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier” by Imtiaz Gul

“How To Win a Cosmic War; God, Globalization and the End of The War on Terror” by Reza Aslan;

Dinng With Al-Qaeda; Three Decades Exploring The Many Worlds of The Middle East” by Hugh Pope

My Life With The Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeff, edited by Alex Strick Linschoten and Felix Kuehn

“To Live or to Perish Forever; Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan” by Nicholas Schmidle;

“The Forever War” by Dexter Filkins

“The Spiders of Allah; Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War” by Jame Hider,

“The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday; Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East” by Neil MacFarquar

“The Duel’ Pakistan On The Flight Path of American Power” by Tariq Ali

“Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror” by Mahmood Mamdani

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