by Matthias Gebauer, John Goetz, Hans Hoyng, Susanne
Koelbl, Marcel Rosenbach and Gregor Peter Schmitz
July 25, 2010
In an unprecedented development, close to 92,000 classified documents
pertaining to the war in Afghanistan have been leaked.
SPIEGEL, the New York Times and the Guardian
have analyzed the raft of mostly classified documents. The war logs expose
the true scale of the Western military deployment - and the problems
beleaguering Germany's Bundeswehr in the Hindu Kush.
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
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
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.
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 indispensable 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.
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
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
SPIEGEL ONLINE has summarized a selection of the most important findings in
Task Force 373 - The
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
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.
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
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
The Flaws of the
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
"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 reportedly already waiting for
the opportunity to ambush the soldiers as they attempted to salvage the
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,
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
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
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,
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
For example, a threat report dated August 21, 2008 warned:
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
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
Flooding in Data
America's intelligence agencies are drowning in a sea of data. Fearful of
repeating the intelligence mistakes that occurred prior to
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.