July 29, 2010

On the Afghans (Updated)

"[Assange] insisted that any risk to informants' lives was outweighed by the overall importance of publishing the information." -- The Times of London

As it turns out, I have one more thing to say about Wikileaks. In the past, I have chastised some on the American Right for their apparent belief that what we -- the United States and its allies -- do or fail to do in Afghanistan is of paramount importance in this conflict. My view, as I think I have made clear, is that ultimately the fate of Afghanistan is in the hands of the Afghans. External actors -- the United States and its allies, Iran, Pakistan, etc. -- are important. But our counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan is dependent for its success on the actions of local Afghan actors. I may be misguided to think this and be prejudiced by my admittedly limited experiences, but based upon 10 years spent either fighting or studying conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, I have arrived at the conclusion that in general the actions of local actors matter more than those of external forces. Thus one thing that a critic like Andrew Bacevich and I share in common is a degree of humility about what we can expect from the exercise of American power abroad.

There is a corollary to the above criticism of the Right, though. On the Left, you can often observe a similar phenomenon -- perhaps as the result of a post-colonial education that often preaches the evils of Western interventions through the years -- in that examining a conflict like Afghanistan, or Iraq, things like agency, responsibility and vulnerability are all disproportionately assigned to the (Western) external actor at the expense of local actors. There is a sign near my home in Washington, for example, in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, which reads: "End the War in Afghanistan." The assumption behind such a sign is that the war is for U.S. and other western policy-makers to end. You saw similar signs in 2005 and 2007 exhorting President Bush to "end" the war in Iraq. As if once the United States and its allies ceased combat operations, the war would somehow end and the grievances of local actors be forgotten. 

In the same way, the political target for Wikileaks and Julian Assange is most certainly U.S. and allied decision-makers. Why else collaborate with Western media outlets such as the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel and not al-Jazeera or Xinhua? The assumption, again, is that this is an American and Western war in Afghanistan, and thus we should reserve responsibility for what does and does not happen for Western policy-makers. The agency is stripped from Afghan and other local actors. So too is any claim of vulnerability.

I have said before that those western media outlets I mentioned above often labor to protect the lives of U.S. and allied servicemen and intelligence officers when reporting on sensitive stories. I appreciate that, even if Julian Assange, referring to last week's series of articles on the U.S. intelligence community in the Washington Post, considers this kind of stuff "craven". But it does seem as if measures have been taken by Wikileaks to protect U.S. and allied personnel whose lives might be endangered by the leaks. The same cannot be said for the Afghans. A cursory search of the Wikileaks documents by the consistently excellent Afghanistan-based journalist Tom Coughlan revealed hundreds of Afghan lives to have been put at risk by these leaked documents. The mentions of Afghans -- either because they have confounding, non-Western names or because they simply are not considered of importance -- do not seem to have been considered by Mr. Assange and Wikileaks when they decided to dump these documents into the public sphere.

I don't know whether Mr. Assange simply did not understand enough about Afghanistan to realize what he was doing when he leaked these documents or just doesn't care, so myopic is his focus on the governments of the United States and Europe. But when I stop and think about this, I think of one of the good guys in U.S. foreign and defense policy through recent decades, Richard Armitage, and the stories of how in the last days of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, he returned to save hundreds of Vietnamese who had worked with the United States. Long after the U.S. public had moved on -- remember, the iconic image of the fall of Saigon was that picture of our embassy, proving how hard it is for us to focus on anything other than ourselves -- the men and women who had actually fought and bled alongside their Vietnamese counterparts still gave a shit about their well-being. I suspect that's the way it's going to be in Afghanistan, too. For the U.S. and allied soldiers, diplomats and aid workers who have worked alongside Afghans, they matter. They are our peers. For Mr. Assange and others, they're little more than local color. Certainly not lives worth protecting.

Welcome to the world of collateral murder, Wikileaks.

Update: Josh Foust, whose tweets on this deserve credit for getting me so fired up in the first place, has a post up on Registan.

Update II: Glenn Greenwald counters.

As was painfully predictable and predicted, the bulk of political discussion in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosures focuses not on our failing, sagging, pointless, civilian-massacring, soon-to-be-decade-old war, but rather on the Treasonous Evil of WikiLeaks for informing the American people about what their war entails.  While it's true that WikiLeaks should have been much more careful in redacting the names of Afghan sources, watching Endless War Supporters prance around with righteous concern for Afghan lives being endangered by the leak is really too absurd to bear.   You know what endangers innocent Afghan lives?  Ten years of bombings, checkpoint shootings, due-process-free hit squads, air attacks, drones, night raids on homes, etc. etc.

I don't know if he realizes it, but Mr. Greenwald actually provides a darn good example of the tendencies on the American Left that I described above. No, Mr. Greenwald, the Afghans have not suffered through ten years of war. The conflict to which we have been a party for the past nine-plus years did not start on 12 September 2001. The Marxist coup that shattered the peace enjoyed by most Afghans for the bulk of the 20th Century began in 1978. The Afghan people have thus suffered through 32 years of near continuous conflict. Were the United States and its allies to withdraw from Afghanistan tomorrow, the war would surely continue.

Again, the American Left is as often as bad as the American Right: its pundits reserve all the agency for Western actors and assume history stops and starts when we the United States do something or stop doing something. Afghans and their actions, in this example, are rendered meaningless without Western attention to validate them. But we can no sooner "end" this conflict by pulling everyone out than we can "win" it by snapping our fingers and sending more troops. I have a lot more sympathy for a hard-core neo-isolationist who thinks the United States should just abandon most foreign interventions, consequences be damned, because those guys are usually at least realistic about the way the world works. They understand that life, death, famine and conflict will continue in our absence. For too many others, the history of Afghanistan begins in 2001 (when we the United States started caring about it again) and will end the moment we leave. Were the United States and its allies to leave Afghanistan, though, the conflict would go on: the only thing that would depart that country with our troops would be the short-lived attention of America's self-absorbed punditry.