By 1996, small Arab groups in Afghanistan had linked up with the warring Taliban, cemented ties with Pakistani religious radicals, particularly groups associated with the Jamiat-e-ulema-Islam, a political party closely allied with the ISI. The purpose for Pakistan was to unleash an uprising against Indian-occupied Kashmir, long contested by the two subcontinent rivals. Guerrillas for Kashmir were recruited from the same talent pool of JUI seminaries supplying young fighters for the Taliban against the Northern Alliance.
To avoid Indian detection, the ISI conducted much of the training for its Kashmir campaign in Afghanistan, with the cooperation of the Taliban. In turn, several camps were placed under bin Laden's control for the use of the terrorist network he was creating for his own longer term goals: to force the United States out of the Middle East, in particular Saudi Arabia, home of the Islamic shrines in Mecca and Medina. It was those bin Laden camps that the U.S. hit with cruise missiles in 1998, in an effort to destroy the Saudi radical and his terrorist allies after they had been linked to the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Unfortunately, the camps were virtually empty when the missiles hit, although a dozen Pakistani nationals were killed.
But for all their eye-popping details, the intelligence files, which are mostly collated by junior officers relying on informants and Afghan officials, fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity. Most of the reports are vague, filled with incongruent detail, or crudely fabricated. The same characters – famous Taliban commanders, well-known ISI officials – and scenarios repeatedly pop up. And few of the events predicted in the reports subsequently occurred.
A retired senior American officer said ground-level reports were considered to be a mixture of “rumours, bullshit and second-hand information” and were weeded out as they passed up the chain of command. “As someone who had to sift through thousands of these reports, I can say that the chances of finding any real information are pretty slim,” said the officer, who has years of experience in the region.
If anything, the jumble of allegations highlights the perils of collecting accurate intelligence in a complex arena where all sides have an interest in distorting the truth.
Adam Serwer, a staff writer for the American Prospect, tweeted this morning, “Former Military Intelligence Officer sez of wikileaks, ‘Its an AQ/Taliban execution team’s treasure trove.’”
This is a very real worry — despite Assange’s assurances that his organization is withholding 15,000 documents to “redact” or change any names, what assurances can we have that WikiLeaks will do a good job?
Can an organization whose sole purpose is exposing secret information really do a good job safeguarding the lives it endangers through exposure? They really cannot. The New York Times admitted as much, saying they took much greater pains not to provide readers the means to uncover the identities of anyone in the reports they mention (some of these efforts, like not linking to WikiLeaks, are almost cutesy on the Internet, but are nevertheless honest). “At the request of the White House,” the Times editors say, “[we] urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.”
Small comfort, since WikiLeaks is barely trying. The materials in question mostly consist of immediate incident reports — seemingly downloaded directly from CIDNE, a massive reporting database the military maintains in Afghanistan and Iraq. These reports are about as accurate as first reports from a crime scene: often accurate in atmosphere, but usually wrong on details.
The military is rightly accused of overclassifying material, but in this case we have some idea of why: even with the names removed from these reports, you know where they happened (many still have place names). You know when they happened. And you know an Afghan was speaking to a U.S. soldier or intelligence agent. If you have times, locations and half the participants, you don’t need names to identify who was involved in a conversation — with some very basic detective work, you can find out (and it’s much easier to do in Afghanistan, which loves gossip).
If I were a Taliban operative with access to a computer — and lots of them have access to computers — I’d start searching the WikiLeaks data for incident reports near my area of operation to see if I recognized anyone. And then I’d kill whomever I could identify. Those deaths would be directly attributable to WikiLeaks.
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