Magazine article The New Yorker


Magazine article The New Yorker


Article excerpt

Last September, an assessment of the war in Afghanistan, by the American commander General Stanley McChrystal, was leaked to the press. The timing was not incidental. President Obama was trying to make up his mind about what kind of war he wanted to wage, for how long, and with how many soldiers. McChrystal had a definite opinion: the best way to win was to send forty-five thousand more troops to Afghanistan--the sooner the better.

That same month, American soldiers in Balkh Province, in the north of Afghanistan, were planning a search-and-clear operation. It was not going well. According to a report written by a member of Task Force Warrior, a unit of the 10th Mountain Division, local civilians would not cooperate, whereupon Afghan soldiers and policemen "harassed and beat" them. The area's residents "had a negative opinion" of their nation's security forces, the writer noted. A police district commander

is reported to have had forcible sexual contact with a 16 ye old AC [Afghan civilian] female. When AC from the area went to complain to the ANP [Afghan National Police] district commander about the incident, the district commander ordered his body guard to open fire on the AC. The body guard refused at which time the district commander shot him in front of the AC.

This dispatch was one of some seventy-six thousand classified American military documents, mostly field reports, released online by WikiLeaks, an organization committed to making secrets public. (The group says that, at the insistence of its source, it delayed the publication of fifteen thousand other documents as part of "a harm minimization process"; still, the names of some Afghan informants were posted.) WikiLeaks gave the Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel an advance look at the entire archive, which covers events from January, 2004, to December, 2009, in every corner of Afghanistan.

Almost immediately, a consensus emerged that little in the files was actually secret or new. There is something to that. We did know, in a general sense, much of what they document: that the regime of President Hamid Karzai is corrupt and unpopular, that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency has ties to the Taliban, that too many civilians are dying. There had been reports, including some in this magazine, of targeted killings. And we knew that the Afghan security forces were a disaster, even after we had spent twenty-seven billion dollars to train them. But knowing specifically what happened to a sixteen-year-old girl and to the man who stood up to her alleged rapist--and knowing that her attacker may have been in a position to do what he did because he was backed by our troops and our money--is different.

And what do we still not know? The documents are labelled in various ways, among them whether an incident involved an "enemy" or a "friend." The Balkh report is marked "enemy," and it does mention insurgents killing a motorist. But the designation, of this and many of the other reports, raises a larger question: Do we know who in Afghanistan is our enemy and who is our friend? Al Qaeda is our enemy, of course, but after that the lines get blurry. Is a police chief who might chase insurgents one day but creates more of them by alienating the civilian population the next our enemy or our friend? When our soldiers go to the chief's village and are met with hostility, whose fight are they walking into?

The Afghan security forces apparently can't tell their friends from their enemies, either. In February, 2008, according to one report, an Afghan policeman "was in the public shower smoking hash" when two Afghan National Army guys walked in. …

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