Last Friday the WikiLeaks organization again published previously classified Defense Department documents. WikiLeaks claims it is the most massive publication of classified documents in U.S. military history.
Its founder, Julian Assange, in answer to questions about the operation of his organization, reportedly told a reporter, "I'm too busy ending two wars."
Not long ago, Assange leaked tens of thousands of secret reports on Afghanistan that were supposed to prove America's failure there. This time 391,382 "war logs" -- raw reports from the Iraq war -- are claimed to prove that innocent Iraqis were murdered, that there was torture of prisoners by forces of the post-Saddam government, and that there were vastly more deaths in the Iraq conflict than were previously documented.
The documents were created from January 1, 2004 to December 31, 2009. And they encompass the most significant period of the post-invasion occupation, which began with the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite Samarra mosque, igniting the worst period of Sunni-Shea violence.
A few key dates are worth remembering. The invasion began on March 19, 2003, and on April 19, Saddam's regime vacated Baghdad. In April, the decision was made to not transfer sovereignty back to Iraqis for an indefinite period. Gen. Jay Garner was initially put in charge of Iraq "reconstruction" in April and he was replaced in May by the "Coalition Provisional Authority" under Amb. L. Paul Bremer. On June 28, 2004, sovereignty was returned to an Iraqi government under Shiite Iyad al- Allawi as prime minister and Sunni president Ghazi al-Yawar. But that government and its successors to this day have been unable to govern Iraq.
Beginning with the transfer of sovereignty, the occupation continued under the framework of nation-building. But with a sovereign national authority, Iraqi government forces could and did operate as they chose, running prisons and interrogating prisoners without American supervision.
And at the same time, U.S. and Coalition forces were trying to maintain security and operate militarily against the insurgents. Gen. David Petraeus's "surge" began in 2007 and reinforced the counterinsurgency strategy he had begun earlier in a few Iraqi provinces.
Several news organizations, including apparently the New York Times, Britain's Guardian newspaper, and al-Jazeera, were given advance access to the documents. From their reporting, and from my own scant review of just a few of the documents, they appear to illustrate the inherent -- and forseeable -- problems with the nation-building strategy we pursued in Iraq and are still pursuing in Afghanistan.
The Guardian headlines report torture, murders, and war crimes. It reports, "US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers whose conduct appears to be systematic and normally unpunished." In an occupation, we would have the obligation to investigate and punish such crimes. But from the moment the Iraqis resumed sovereignty over their own nation, any moral obligation we had was abrogated by the Iraqis' authority over their own affairs.
The New York Times -- in extensive Sunday coverage -- returns to a familiar narrative of indiscriminate killing by U.S. security contractors. ("Contractors Added to War's Chaos.")
The security contractor issue is another result of the occupation-cum-nation-building strategy. As Gen. Hugh Shelton, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in a CNN interview yesterday, we simply didn't have enough troops to provide security for all the other government agencies attempting to build Iraq. Neither the CIA nor the State Department, both of which have been heavily engaged in Iraq, could have attempted to operate in Iraq without contractor-provided security.
The Times spins it back to 2004 when four Blackwater employees were killed in an ambush. It writes,
"Even now — with many contractors discredited for unjustified shootings and a lack of accountability amply described in the documents — the military cannot do without them. There are more contractors over all [sic] than actual members of the military serving in the worsening war in Afghanistan."
(My search of the WikiLeaks website repeatedly returned "no results" when I searched for the name "Blackwater," the firm that was involved in a series of famous incidents. A few Blackwater employees have been punished but the vast majority served effectively and with honor. On any number of occasions, according to my sources, Blackwater "little bird" helicopters braved ground fire to perform emergency medevac pickups without getting paid for them.)
The Washington Post reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fears that the WikiLeaks documents will provide ammunition to his opponents in his seven-month standoff with Iyad Allawi after the inconclusive March election. Maliki fears human rights investigators will blame him for what Iraqi security forces have done. But Iyad Allawi was prime minister from 2004 to 2005. If blame there be, and there will be much, it must be shared. Nevertheless, the WikiLeaks revelations will only add to the political chaos that is Iraq today.
The Post goes along with the WikiLeaks claim that the new documents show "…that U.S. soldiers killed at least 700 Iraqi civilians in situations where troops felt threatened."
That claim may well be true. But how else can troops act -- in accordance with the rules of engagement written by their commanders -- when they are put in the position of city cops and terrorists are threatening them daily with IEDs and suicide attacks? Innocent civilians were surely killed. But the troops are not to blame. Their commanders are for putting them in the role of nation-builders.
The Saudi government-controlled Arab News is ahead of the American media. Its Sunday editorial says, "The new revelations do not just detail the involvement of the US and UK forces in the casual, cold blooded killings and abuse, they also reveal their connivance of the torture, killings, rapes and persecution of Iraqi civilians by the Iraqi forces. If thousands of innocents perished in blasts and attacks by the terrorists and in sectarian killings, many more died at the hands of coalition forces at security checkpoints."
When the election is over in two-plus weeks, and George W. Bush's memoir is published, we will -- again -- re-litigate the Iraq war. And if our adversaries have their way -- and among them are the Saudis and the ideological left in this country and abroad -- that debate will continue through 2012.
We cannot prevent the debate from going on, nor should we try. But we have to focus it on the question that is of ultimate importance to the war in Afghanistan and everywhere else terrorists find safe haven and support: that the neocons, the nation-builders of record, have it entirely wrong. We cannot win the war by fighting the enemy's proxies or in spending blood and treasure trying to create democracies in the Muslim world.