Tuesday, July 27, 2010

WikiWar: The language of mission creep

It’s written in the clipped, official, denaturing tongue of a modern military machine, acronymal expressions of life-changing events. WIAs are those wounded in action, KIA are those killed in action. But sometimes it needs no translation. These are the words, the literal words, of modern war, a war that for the United States is unraveling, a war whose language has its coded aspects but which finally can’t conceal the collapse of the rationale that made that language and that war necessary.

In what may be the most damning disclosure of a war gone awry since the Pentagon Papers, the Swedish-based organization Wikileaks on Sunday released more than 75,000 secret U.S. military reports and communications encompassing six years of the war in Afghanistan. The documents are panoramic in their breadth and assertions, the most provocative of which may be speculating on the possible antagonistic role of Pakistan in the Afghan conflict; as well as the expansive corruption that’s come to define the Afghan national government.

But for understanding the guts of the conflict, it’s the “severity” browse tab that puts everything in perspective. That’s where you find the fighting, and dying, that are central to this and any war.

The Afghan War Diary is the most significant archive about the reality of war to have ever been released during the course of a war,” Wikileaks said in a summary statement at the Wikileaks Web site. “The deaths of tens of thousands is normally only a statistic but the archive reveals the locations and the key events behind each most of these deaths. We hope its release will lead to a comprehensive understanding of the war in Afghanistan and provide the raw ingredients necessary to change its course.”

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The United States government is not pleased. The Pentagon has been reviewing the docs with an eye to any damaging disclosures. The White House, in damage control on Monday, reacted predictably. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, calling the release “a breach of federal law,” said “whenever you have the potential for names, for operations and programs to be out there in the public domain, besides being against the law, it has the potential to be very harmful to those that are in our military ...”

Some in Congress have made the similarly reflexively patriotic calculation that release of these documents prima facie jeopardizes the war effort in Afghanistan, and possibly national security in general.

Wikileaks, no doubt anticipating concerns over really sensitive and compromising information, held some items back for further review:

“We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits,” Wikileaks said in the summary.

But there may not be much to worry about. An admittedly casual hourlong review of the diary reveals what for this reader are a series of incident statements, after-action reports that represent a recall of what just happened, largely populated with anonymous players: a skirmish with INS (insurgents), a SAF (small-arms fire) exchange resulting in 3 EKIA (enemy killed in action).

It’s a surprise how a wartime dispatch can manage to be alarming and clinical at once

ISAF # 11-1440 SC21 DECLARES TIC S-10-12 INS A-ENGAGING PATROL WITH MORTAR/RPG/PKM L-41R NQ 9909 8888 T-0842Z A-ENGAGING//RQST CAS 0911Z-SC 21 REPORTS: CONTINUE TO ENGAGE WITH ORGANIC WEAPONS // 2 x EKIA 0938- SC 21 REPORTS: ADDITIONAL 3 x EKIA 1040Z- SC 21 REPORTS: RECEIVING EFFECTIVE RPG AND SAF // THE RATE OF ENEMY FIRE HAS INCREASED ATT //

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What may be so damning for the Obama White House in all this has less to do with the content and everything to do with the context. For the first time in a really comprehensive way, we’re getting the view of the war we’ve only seen sporadically, not the perspective of generals but that of the forward observer, the squads on patrol. This is a chronology of boots on the ground of hell. This is where the theory of “mission creep” (what happens when operational successes breed a climate of ambition and risk that often leads to greater operational failures) is painfully distilled.

Reading these terse, fragmented epistles of 21st-century combat, we’re witness to the sudden chaos of the Afghan war; its capacity for sudden and deadly velocity; its wholly unpredictable nature; its prosecution in some of the most unforgiving terrain on this planet. Pentagon leak assessments notwithstanding, the biggest revelations of the Afghan war diary lie in the smallest details. The diary’s significance isn’t in telling us what we don’t know, it’s in the way it tells us what we already know.

President Obama, speaking today in the White House, understands at least some of this: “While I’m concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations, the fact is, these documents don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate on Afghanistan,” the president said from the Rose Garden.

But that’s only half right. The Wikileaks power dump on Sunday didn’t reveal any “issues,” and it probably wasn’t intended to. The release of these docs refires an urgency in the war debate, reframes that debate in ways that are immune to statements and spin. What even the casual reader grasps, page by page, year by year, is a sense of drift, a foundational thread of reaction. That’s a huge problem for an administration bound, for now, to staying the course.

That course includes a tacit acceptance of the wildly improbable but apparently true. Recently, journalist Christina Lamb reported in The London Times about elements of the Afghan national army, whose members routinely have sex with each other, wear makeup and are often under the influence of illicit narcotics while in training or on the battlefield.

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Spending for the Afghan war is about $3.6 billion a month, and with the House’s vote today to approve another supplemental appropriation of $37 billion more for the wars there and in Iraq, the total amount of money for both conflicts passes $1 trillion.

Thus, the Obama White House is faced with having a reaction of its own, and with making a decision whose gravity or timing aren’t altered in the least by the Wikileaks release.

For some, the Wikileaks material makes a White House reaction self-evident. If only they'd listen. "The fundamental problem is that we cannot accomplish the mission," said Peter Galbraith, former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, on MSNBC's "Hardball" today. "I think it is a waste of resources to put people in a mission that can't be achieved. And frankly, it's immoral to send young men and women on a mission that cannot succeed."

The Afghan war effort is clearly WIA and has been for many months. It’s a catastrophe pulling our human and financial resources into an increasingly destructive vortex that’s harder to escape as time goes on. Wikileaks just provided the operational tick-tock of the evolution of a war effort that’s failing — something that’s not so much classified information as it is common knowledge.

Image credits:  U.S. sniper team, Afghanistan 2006: Cpl. Bertha Flores, U.S. Army. War Diary excerpts via Wikileaks.org. Coalition fatalities chart: LokilT, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license; data from icasualties.org.

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