A total of 91,731 reports from United States military databanks relating to the war in Afghanistan are to be made publicly available on the Internet. Never before has it been possible to compare the reality on the battlefield in such a detailed manner with what the US Army propaganda machinery is propagating. WikiLeaks plans to post the documents, most of which are classified, on its website.
Britain's Guardian newspaper, the New York Times and SPIEGEL have all vetted the material and compared the data with independent reports. All three media sources have concluded that the documents are authentic and provide an unvarnished image of the war in Afghanistan -- from the perspective of the soldiers who are fighting it.
The reports, from troops engaged in the ongoing combat, were tersely summarized and quickly dispatched. For the most part, they originate from sergeants -- but some have been penned by the occasional lieutenant at a command post or ranking analysts with the military intelligence service.
The documents' release comes at a time when calls for a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan are growing -- even in America. Last week, representatives from more than 70 nations and organizations met in Kabul for the Afghanistan conference. They assured President Hamid Karzai that his country would be in a position by 2014 to guarantee security using its own soldiers and police.
A Gloomy Picture
But such shows of optimism seem cynical in light of the descriptions of the situation in Afghanistan provided in the classified documents. Nearly nine years after the start of the war, they paint a gloomy picture. They portray Afghan security forces as the hapless victims of Taliban attacks. They also offer a conflicting impression of the deployment of drones, noting that America's miracle weapons are also entirely vulnerable.
And they show that the war in northern Afghanistan, where German troops are stationed, is becoming increasingly perilous. The number of warnings about possible Taliban attacks in the region -- fuelled by support from Pakistan -- has increased dramatically in the past year.
The documents offer a window into the war in the Hindu Kush -- one which promises to change the way we think about the ongoing violence in Afghanistan. They will also be indispensible for anyone seeking to inform themselves about the war in the future.
Despite repeated requests, the White House refused to provide any comment in time for the deadline of the printed edition of SPIEGEL. On Saturday evening, however, a White House official finally provided written answers to select questions about the content of the reports obtained, but refused to grant an interview.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, said: "Since taking office, President Obama has been very clear and candid with the American people about the challenges that we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The president and senior officials in his administration have spoken openly and repeatedly about the safe havens that exist in Pakistan, the security and governance challenges in Afghanistan, and the difficulties that lie ahead. ... It is important to note that the time period reflected in the documents is January 2004 to December 2009. The war in Afghanistan was under-resourced for many years. ... On Dec. 1, 2009, President Obama announced a new strategy and new resources for Afghanistan and Pakistan precisely because of the grave situation there."
Responding to the intention of WikiLeaks to make the classified military documents available online, Rhodes said: "We strongly condemn the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations that put the lives of the US and partner service members at risk and threatens our national security." He said that WikiLeaks made "no effort to contact the United States government about these documents, which may contain information that endanger the lives of Americans, our partners and local populations who cooperate with us."
The editors in chief of SPIEGEL, the New York Times and the Guardian have agreed that they would not publish especially sensitive information in the classified material -- like the names of the US military's Afghan informants or information that could create additional security risks for soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. The publishers were unanimous in their belief that there is a justified public interest in the material because it provides a more thorough understanding of a war that continues today after almost nine years.
SPIEGEL ONLINE has summarized a selection of the most important findings in the data:
Task Force 373: The Secret Hunters
The members of Task Force 373, a troop of US elite soldiers that includes Navy Seals and members of the Delta Force, receive their orders directly from the Pentagon and are independent of the chain of command of the international ISAF Afghanistan security forces. Their mission is to deactivate top Taliban and terrorists by either killing or capturing them.
For years, a major effort was made to keep a lid on the details of their deployment. With the leaking of the war logs on Sunday, however, their work is an open secret.
The mission reports also offer considerable information about the coalition troops' classified list of enemies. The "Joint Prioritized Effects List" (JPEL), as it is soberly referred to in military circles, contains the names of Taliban, drug barons, bombmakers and al-Qaida members -- each with a processing number and a priority level. The decision on whether or not to arrest or kill the targeted person is often left to the hunters themselves.
A total of 84 reports about JPEL actions can be found in the thousands of pieces of data. Experts consider it a fact that targeted killings are taking place in the war in Afghanistan. But no top military officials are willing to discuss the issue. The newly released data now show what command units like Task Force 373 are up to each night -- and how things can also go terribly wrong.
A report on June 17, 2007, for example, includes a warning in the second sentence that this operation of the TF 373 must be "kept protected." Details about the mission could not be provided to other countries contributing to the ISAF forces.
The aim was to kill prominent al-Qaida functionary Abu Laith al-Libi. The special forces suspected that the top terrorist and several of his followers were present at a Koran school the soldiers had been staking out for a number of days.
But after the impact of five American rockets, instead of finding al-Libi, the ground forces discovered six dead children in the rubble of the school. A further seriously injured child was also found but could not be saved.
German Naivity: Growing Trouble in the North
The newly emerged documents do not contain any information suggesting that German troops were involved in any excesses of violence against the civilian population or in any illegal clandestine operations. Nevertheless, they convey an image of Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, that is still devastating because they depict a German military that stumbled into the conflict with great naiveté.
The Germans thought that the northern provinces where their soldiers are stationed would be more peaceful compared to other provinces and that the situation would remain that way.
They were wrong. As far back as the end of 2005, resistance against the international troop presence began to grow -- locals were either threatened by the Taliban and powerful warlords or their support was bought. Warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example, spurred the fighting by offering 100,000 to 500,000 afghanis ($2,000 to $10,000) to the leader of any insurgency group. Hekmatyar's appeals and cash donations are carefully documented in the reports.
At the start of the deployment, some Bundeswehr soldiers jokingly called the small city of Kunduz "Bad Kunduz," the word "Bad" being the German word officially bestowed on spa towns. But peaceful days in Kunduz, where a large number of German troops are stationed, have long been a thing of the past. At the very latest, the quiet ended on May 19, 2007. That day, three German soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber as they tried to buy refrigerators at a local market. Eight Afghan civilians also died in the first deadly attack deliberately targeted at Germans in the region.
In a "threat report" dated May 31, 2007, German troops based in Kunduz reported on the general situation following another suicide attack. "Contrary to all expectations of the Regional Command North, the attacks of the insurgents in Kunduz are going on as foreseen by the Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunduz and mentioned before several times," the German document states, adding that more attacks, particularly against ISAF troops, "are strongly expected."
The soldiers appear to have been correct to have felt they were under a state of siege. The documents that have been obtained are comprised primarily of so-called "threat reports," thousands of danger scenarios and concrete warnings about planned attacks. These reports provide a clearer picture of the deterioration of the security situation in northern Afghanistan than the information provided by the German government or the federal parliament, the Bundestag, which must provide a legal mandate for the Bundeswehr's deployments abroad. Police checkpoints are constantly attacked or come under fire, patrols are targeted in deadly ambushes and roadside bombs explode.
They also show how close northern Afghanistan has slid toward a new civil war and how little the Germans have achieved during their deployment in the Hindu Kush.
The Flaws of the Silent Killer: When Drones Fail
The classified situation report from the "RC East" region in eastern Afghanistan at first reads like a routine transcript: "Oct. 17, 2009: At approximately 1300 ANA (Afghan National Army) received intelligence that approximately 20 insurgents were moving south of their position in the wadi (dried-out river bed). At approximately 1400 the Raven was launched, and flew directly to FB. We observed no enemy in the wadi." But problems were then experienced with the flight of the Raven, a US military reconnaissance drone. "While making the U turn, approximately 300M from FB (Fire Base) -- the bird suddenly lost altitude and crashed," the report states.
Then the situation grew hectic: "Immediately we attempted to secure a dismounted patrol from FB to secure the bird, and prepared a patrol of 6 US (soldiers) 40 ANA (Afghan soldiers) ... and requested immediate CCA (air cover) to over watch the crash site and try to get eyes on the raven. While preparing to SP (conduct a search patrol) the ANA got cold feet and decided they did not want to do the dismounted patrol."
In the end the soldiers did set out to search for the crashed drone, but they had to turn back because insurgents were reportedy already waiting for the opportunity to ambush the soldiers as they attempted to salvage the drone.
System Failures, Computer Glitches and Human Error
Indeed, the secret memos reveal the drawbacks of a weapon that has been lauded by the US military as a panacea, a view shared by the president. In his short time in office, Barack Obama has unleashed double the number of drone missions ordered by his seemingly trigger-happy predecessor, George W. Bush.
The unmanned assassin can fly for more than 20 hours and kill at lightning speed. But they are not always reliable. According to official reports, 38 Predator and Reaper drones have crashed while on combat missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, while a further nine have crashed during test flights on military bases in the US. Each crash costs the government between $3.7 million (€2.8 million) and $5 million.
The US Department of Defense accident reports show that system failures, computer glitches and human errors are common occurrences during drone missions. It seems that serious problems were ignored because of the need for the drones to be deployed as quickly as possible. The new weapon was urgently in demand following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the hasty start of the invasion of Afghanistan.
"The drones were not ready for going into combat," says Travis Burdine, manager of the Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force. "We had no time to iron out the problems." Burdine's statement is backed up by reports in the war logs. Indeed, the quiet killers seem to have a lot of defects.
It is not just the costs incurred by these crashes that worry the US military. Even the smaller reconnaissance drones are packed with complicated computer technology -- advances the military doesn't want to fall into enemy hands. Both Reapers and Predators have a so-called "zero out" function, which allows data to be deleted remotely. Unfortunately, this feature sometimes fails. And out of fear that important information could fall into the hands of the Taliban, each drone crash necessitates elaborate -- and dangerous -- salvage operations.
The Secret Enemy in Pakistan: Problems mit an Supposed Partner
The Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's secret service, originally helped to build up and deploy the Taliban after Afghanistan descended into a bitter and fratricidal civil war between the mujahedeen who had prevailed over the Soviets and forced their withdrawal. Despite all of the reassurances from Pakistani politicians that the old ties are cut, the country is still pursuing an ambiguous policy in the region -- at once serving as both an ally to the US and as a helper to its enemy.
There is plenty of new evidence to support this thesis. The documents clearly show that the Pakistani intelligence agency is the most important accomplice the Taliban has outside of Afghanistan. The war against the Afghan security forces, the Americans and their ISAF allies is still being conducted from Pakistan.
The country is an important safe haven for enemy forces -- and serves as a base for issuing their deployment. New recruits to the Taliban stream across the Pakistan-Afghan border, including feared foreign fighters -- among them Arabs, Chechnyans, Uzbekis, Uighurs and even European Islamists.
According to the war logs, the ISI envoys are present when insurgent commanders hold war councils -- and even give specific orders to carry out murders. These include orders to try to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai. For example, a threat report dated August 21, 2008 warned: "Colonel Mohammad Yusuf from the ISI had directed Taliban official Maulawi Izzatullah to see that Karzai was assassinated."
Former Pakistan intelligence chief General Hamid Gul plays a prominent role in the ISI documents. After he left office, Gul came across in the Western media as a kind of propagandist for the Taliban. In the documents, Gul is depicted as an important source of aid to the Taliban and even, in one report, as "a leader" of the insurgents. One threat report from Jan. 14, 2008 claims that he coordinated the planned kidnapping of United Nations employees on Highway 1 between Kabul and Jalalabad.
The memos state that Gul ordered suicide attacks, and they also describe the former intelligence chief as one of the most important suppliers of weaponry to the Taliban. One report mentions a convoy of 65 trucks carrying munitions that Gul allegedly organized for the Taliban. Another claims the ISI delivered 1,000 motorcycles to the Haqqanis, a warlord family led by Sirajuddin Haqqani who -- together with the Taliban and Hekmatyar -- are among the three greatest opponents of Western forces in Afghanistan. Another mentions 7,000 weapons that were sent to the border province of Kunar, including Kalashnikovs, mortars and Strella rockets.
Still, even those who drew up the reports are uncertain of their veracity. This kind of uncertainty creeps up often in the documents. They reveal the great weakness of the US communications strategy.
Addressing the facets about Pakistan, White House official Rhodes responded: "The status quo is not acceptable, which is precisely why the United States had focused so much on this challenge. Pakistan is moving in the right direction, but more must be done. The safe havens for violent extremist groups within Pakistan continue to pose an intolerable threat to the United States, to Afghanistan and to the Pakistani people who have suffered greatly from terrorism. The Pakistani government -- and Pakistan's military and intelligence services -- must continue their strategic shift against violent extremist groups within their borders and stay on the offensive against them."
Intelligence Agents Flooding in Data: The Shortcomings of US Intelligence Services
America's intelligence agencies are drowning in a sea of data. Fearful of repeating the intelligence mistakes that occurred prior to 9/11, analysts seem to be blindly reporting every single thing.
Security experts have been complaining for some time that these countless reports concentrate too heavily on the opinions and the movements of the enemy -- in this case on the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Far too many analysts and too many reconnaissance flights seem to be concerned with sketching out the hierarchy of the insurgents' networks and creating lists of enemies who should be killed or captured. Intelligence agents are constantly gathering statements from local informants, whose eagerness to please the Americans often surpasses their reliability.
Yet the most serious issues are too often overlooked: The protection of the Afghan civilians, the analysis of the political environment and the search for solution to this endless conflict.
One thing, however, is certain. These thousands of secret documents indicate that, after almost nine years of war, a victory in Hindu Kush looks farther away than ever.