“I’ve been waiting for [this] for a long time”, tweeted Daniel Ellsberg, in reference to the release of more than 92,000 pages of classified US military documents by the whistle-blower website Wikileaks, on July 25.
Ellsberg, who famously leaked thousands of pages of a classified document revealing the secret history of the Vietnam War (the Pentagon Papers) in 1971, told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman: “It is the first release in 39 years on the scale of the Pentagon Papers. How many times in these years should there have been the release of thousands of pages showing our being lied into war in Iraq, as in Vietnam, and the nature of the war in Afghanistan?”
Wikileaks’ “Afghanistan War Diary” is an archive of reports written mostly by soldiers on the ground between 2004 and 2009, detailing killings of civilians, including children, the growing strength of the resistance to the occupation and covert support for the Taliban from Pakistan’s military. Its release has left White House and Pentagon spokespeople floundering to defend the nine-year war, which the US military and its NATO allies are losing.
At first, they claimed that the documents didn’t reflect the reality of the war, since they predated the Obama administration’s “surge” of combat troops announced late last year. Then national security adviser General James Jones condemned the disclosure, saying it “could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security”. At the same time, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “There’s no broad new revelations in this”. Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference, “[Wikileaks founder and chief editor Julian] Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is [Wikileaks] might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family”.
Slaughter of the innocents
But – as the leaked documents reveal – it is not Wikileaks that has blood on its hands. It’s the Obama administration, which continues to send troops to fight and die for its imperial interests in both Afghanistan and Iraq. With public support for the war already waning, this leak can only strengthen the call for the troops to come home.
Following the release, Assange told Amy Goodman: “Most civilian casualties occur in instances where one, two, 10 or 20 people are killed – they rarely numerically dominate the list of events ... The way to really understand this war is by seeing that there is one killed after another, every day, going on and on.” Assange described a massacre, which he referred to as a “Polish My Lai”. On August 16, 2007, after returning to a village where they had suffered a roadside bomb that morning, Polish troops – part of the NATO occupation troops in Afghanistan – launched mortars into the village, striking a house where a wedding party was under way.
In another incident in 2007, reported in the Guardian, a convoy of US Marines was struck by a minivan rigged with explosives near the city of Jalalabad. As they raced the six miles back to their base, the Marines opened fire with automatic weapons, spraying bullets at anything in their path, including “teenage girls in fields, motorists in their cars, old men as they walked along the road”. In what the Guardian described as a “bloodbath”, “nineteen unarmed civilians were killed and 50 wounded”. The Wikileaks documents demonstrate a cover-up by the US military, which, according to the Guardian, initially reported that, simultaneously with the suicide explosion, “the patrol received small arms fire from three directions”. The six-mile rampage back to the base – which the Guardian notes was later the subject of a 17-day military inquiry and 12,000-page report – was described as simply, “The patrol returned to JAF [Jalalabad air field].”
The documents also illustrate how the massacre and initial cover-up sparked public fury among Afghan civilians at their US occupiers. Demonstrators ran through the streets of Jalalabad breaking windows and blocking roads.
A month later, in April 2007, the Afghan Human Rights Commission published a report into the shooting which said the victims included a 16-year-old woman carrying a bundle of grass and a 75-year-old man walking back from the shops. By then, a US army colonel had admitted to the Afghan puppet government that the shootings were a “terrible, terrible mistake” and “a stain on our honour”. Two thousand dollars were paid to the families of each victim. Yet all of the Marines involved in the incident were later exonerated by the military of any wrongdoing.
The Polish “My Lai” and the massacre near Jalalabad are only two war crimes among many. According to the Guardian, the documents show at least 144 separate instances of the killing of innocent Afghan civilians, ranging from individual shootings at the hands of CIA paramilitaries to mistaken air strikes that wiped out entire families and villages.
In July 2008, American planes attacked an Afghan bridal party of 70 to 90 people on a road near the Pakistani border. The bride and at least 27 other members of the party, including children, were killed. A month later, a memorial service for a tribal leader in the village of Azizabad in Afghanistan’s Herat province was hit by repeated US air strikes that killed at least 90 civilians, including 15 women and up to 60 children, according to a United Nations report. Among the dead were 76 members of one extended family, headed by a “wealthy businessman with construction and security contracts with the nearby American base at Shindand airport”, according to New York Timesjournalist Carlotta Gall. A local tribal leader told Gall: “It is quite obvious, the Americans bombed the area due to wrong information. I am 100 percent confident that someone gave the information due to a tribal dispute ... These people they killed were enemies of the Taliban.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai denounced the strikes against Azizabad and fired two Afghan commanders, including the top ranking officer in western Afghanistan, for “negligence and concealing facts”. An investigation launched by Karzai concluded that more than 90 Afghan civilians had died. The US military initially denied any civilians had died, claiming 30 Taliban “militants” had been killed. This estimate was then revised to 25 Taliban fighters and five “non-combatants”, including a woman and two children. A military “investigation” released findings on August 29, 2008, that supposedly corroborated this casualty count.
Ironically, the US military claimed that its now discredited findings at Azizabad “were corroborated by an independent journalist embedded with the U.S. force”, That “independent journalist” (working for Fox News) was Oliver North, who gained notoriety not only for his role in the Reagan administration’s cover-up of the Iran-Contra scandal, but for his testimony in defence of one of the Marines accused of carrying out a massacre of Vietnamese at Son Thang in February 1970.
This year more reports of civilian casualties have emerged. In February, US helicopters shot at a convoy of mini-buses, killing up to 27 civilians, including women and children. Also in February, in a special operations night raid, two pregnant women and a teenage girl, as well as a police officer and his brother, were shot dead in their home in a village in Paktia province. The soldiers reportedly dug the bullets out of the bodies, washed the wounds with alcohol, and tried to cover up the incident.
On July 23, two days before the release of the Wikileaks documents, a NATO missile attack killed 52 civilians in a small town in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan. Women and children from eight families were packed into a house to escape a US incursion into the village when the residence was demolished from the sky. “They have ruined us, and they have killed small children and innocent women”, a 57-year-old resident told reporters, after he dragged the bodies of his relatives and neighbours from the carnage, according to a report in the New York Times. This incident, like so many others, was initially denied by US and NATO spokespeople and is now being “investigated”.
Previous Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal, after being sacked by the Obama administration, admitted candidly, “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force”. McChrystal’s replacement, General David Petraeus, has promised to escalate the violence in order to subdue the Afghan resistance and force it to make a deal with Washington. The Wikileaks documents also reveal that the Pentagon set up a secret commando unit, Task Force 373 – made up of Army and Navy special operatives whose task is to assassinate individuals from a list of 2000 targets.
Obama used Wikileaks’ disclosures to announce a “change in strategy”.
Thirty-six hours after Wikileaks released the Afghan War Diary, the US House of Representatives voted to pass a bill that funds the war in Afghanistan with an extra US$33 billion and 30,000 more troops, for another year. This “change in strategy” follows a “surge” of 60,000 additional troops deployed to Afghanistan in late 2009.
With each additional deployment, troop casualties mount. July 2010 was the deadliest month of the entire war for both US and NATO troops. The US death count of at least 66 surpassed the June record of 50 killed. US soldiers are being maimed at four times the rate of 2009, and the number of wounded in 2009 was almost three times that of 2008. Ten Australian troops have been killed since June, nearly half the 21 fatalities suffered by Australian forces since 2001. More than 150 Australian soldiers have been wounded.
After the death of three Australian commandos in a helicopter crash on June 21, the Australian defence minister, John Faulkner, told ABC Radio: “It is absolutely critical for the safety and security of Australians and Australia to help prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a training ground and operation base for international terrorists”. Throughout the federal election campaign, both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott used the funerals of troops killed in Afghanistan to pledge their commitment to the war. But their calls for Australians to support the occupation are not being heeded. On the same day the three commandos were killed, a poll conducted by Essential Research found that 60% of Australians want the troops withdrawn from Afghanistan.
What the Wikileaks documents so clearly reveal – and the US and Australian governments have been determined to hide – is that the occupation troops are the real terrorists in Afghanistan today. Only their withdrawal can bring peace for the people of Afghanistan.