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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.

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.”

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