WikiLeaks Should Push Clarity on U.S. Strategy

Security Breach Provides Obama Administration with an Opportunity to Articulate Afghanistan Endgame

The Obama administration should use the security breach as an opportunity to articulate its Afghanistan endgame, write Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman.

A screen capture of the Afghan War Diary Page as it appeared on July 26, 2010. (
A screen capture of the Afghan War Diary Page as it appeared on July 26, 2010. (

The online organization WikiLeaks earlier this week released a massive collection of over 92,000 secret U.S. military Significant Action, or “SIGACT,” records from 2004-2009, in what appears to be the largest single breach of classified documents in U.S. history. The sheer volume of the leaked material and raw nature of much of the information presented makes it almost impossible to fully analyze and contextualize this flood of small events; we offer preliminary impressions only.

  • The public debate that this release has sparked offers the Obama administration an opportunity to provide greater clarity to the American public on its strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan at a time when public support for the war effort is declining.
  • Most of the documents released cover incidents from 2004-2008, when Afghanistan was the forgotten front in U.S. foreign policy and U.S. relations with Pakistan were narrowly transactional—deficiencies that the Obama administration has sought to correct since taking office, with mixed results.
  • Several reports expose concerns about the nature of our partnership with armed Afghan powerbrokers and the Kabul government—issues highlighted in recent CAP work.
  • Much of the material presented in the WikiLeaks memos is familiar, but there may be a real security cost in its release, highlighted by National Security Advisor James Jones’s statement condemning the release as a move that “put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk.”

The principal themes in the data identified by reporters scouring the documents thus far should be old news to those following public reporting on the Afghan conflict over the past five to six years. There is active Pakistani support for the Taliban insurgency—or at least many U.S. troops in the field and many Afghans speak to that fact. The U.S. military has used covert Special Forces, CIA, and Predator drone teams to target mid-level Taliban leadership in Afghanistan—and have made occasionally fatal mistakes when conducting night raids. There is a proliferation of improvised exploding devices, or IEDs, and a deteriorating security situation for Afghan civilians across the country. Many Afghan police and army forces are inept and sometimes caught in firefights with each other or coalition forces. U.S. forces are struggling to provide development and reconstruction assistance and prop up the dysfunctional Afghan government system.

In one entry excerpted by The New York Times, members of the Paktia provincial council question the value of “democracy” under the current government setup, expressing their belief that corruption is at its worst levels in the country’s history and that positions and punishment are doled out by Kabul and based on bribes rather than merit or representation. Corruption by members of the police and justice sector appears to be a recurring theme, and one account finds that local Uruzgan commander Matiullah Khan, a security contractor for NATO logistics, held up another security convoy and demanded tolls for passage through his territory.

The release of these documents will complicate U.S. engagement efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. WikiLeaks has redacted some but not all names from the records, and its files on over 3,000 meetings between coalition forces and a variety of Afghans from inside and outside the government have a potential to further expose those Afghans to a concerted Taliban campaign against those who collaborate with the international coalition. One former military intelligence officer describes the documents as “an [Al Qaeda]/Taliban execution team’s treasure trove.”

The tactical-level detail presented in the military’s incident reporting can make for alternatively fascinating, banal, and horrifying reading. The Obama administration has faced a relentlessly negative cycle of news and public debate on the conduct of the Afghanistan war for several months now, and the release of these records represents the latest challenge to its strategy towards the country.

Even as it works to contain the political and security fallout of the WikiLeaks breach, the administration must provide greater clarity on the end state it is hoping to achieve in Afghanistan and how it hopes to get there given the enormous challenges highlighted in the WikiLeaks documents.

Caroline Wadhams is Director for South Asia Security Studies and Colin Cookman is a Research Assistant at the Center for American Progress.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow

Colin Cookman

Policy Analyst

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