Making sense of the WikiLeaks documents

Like just about everyone else in the media world, I’m trying to make sense today of the WikiLeaks documents, the Pentagon Papers of our time.

The documents — reported by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel — show that the war in Afghanistan has been undermined by untrustworthy “friends” in the Pakistani intelligence service, chaos and duplicity in Afghanistan, and mistakes by American and allied forces leading to civilian casualties.

In a sense, it’s nothing we didn’t know, and the White House argues that the situation has been improving since President Obama charted his own course. (The most recent documents in the cache are from December 2009.) Still, like the Pentagon Papers, the documents offer official confirmation that things are (or at least were) as bad as we feared, if not worse.

I think WikiLeaks’ strategy of giving the three Western news organizations a month to go over the documents before making them public was brilliant. Earlier this year, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, got a lot of attention over a video it had obtained of an American helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters freelancers. Ultimately, though, it proved to be the wrong kind of attention — the heavy-handed editing made it appear more like an anti-American propaganda film than documentary evidence. (WikiLeaks also released a longer, unedited version.)

By contrast, in providing the latest documents to news organizations, Assange was able to get out of the way and let credible journalists tell the story. Jay Rosen, in a characteristically thoughtful post about WikiLeaks (“the world’s first stateless news organization”), thinks Assange did it because he knew the story wouldn’t get the attention it deserved unless the traditional media could break it.

I don’t disagree, but I think a more important reason is that the public will take it more seriously.

Also: At the Nation, Greg Mitchell has been rounding up links about the WikiLeaks story here and here.

Lost Will on Afghanistan

Columnist George Will today calls for the near-total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, writing:

[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

Will’s column is not a huge surprise — he’s been offering previews on ABC’s “This Week.” His assessment matters because of his status as a conservative icon, although, as a traditional conservative rather than a neocon, he was never as gung-ho about war in the Middle East as, say, William Kristol.

Giving Will’s views even more resonance is an especially bleak assessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, who is calling for a far greater commitment of U.S. forces.

President Obama faces an incredibly difficult dilemma. He campaigned on a platform of shifting resources from Iraq to the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, arguing that the move was necessary to deny Al Qaeda a refuge. Yet that’s a dubious proposition, given that Al Qaeda could move anywhere. Indeed, the only reason it’s in Afghanistan is because it was chased out of Sudan.

But before you say we should let Afghanistan go, remember that Pakistan is unstable and armed with nuclear weapons.

Is Will right? I don’t know. I do know that if Obama can meet American security needs without putting American troops in harm’s way, then he should do so as quickly as possible.

The stories behind the Taliban story

With the election in Afghanistan just days away, GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news service, has weighed in with a first-rate multimedia presentation on the Taliban.

Reported by executive editor Charles Sennott and photographed mainly by Seamus Murphy, the package includes text, videos, a slideshow, a historical timeline, a Google map, and podcasts posted to the public radio program “The World.”

For Sennott, a former reporter for the Boston Globe, the project is something of a reprise. In 2006, Sennott was one of the principal journalists who helped put together a package on the war against terrorism, published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. His “Reporter’s Notebook” of multimedia dispatches from Afghanistan and Pakistan was something of a pioneering effort.

In the GlobalPost series, Sennott draws on his long experience in the region, interviewing sources he first met years ago. And he offers some nuance that leaves you feeling uneasy.

Take, for instance, Sally and Don Goodrich, a Vermont couple whose son, Peter, was killed in one of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center. The Goodriches rebuilt their lives by founding a girls school in Afghanistan, in an area that has since been overrun by the Taliban. Not long ago they were presented evidence by U.S. military officials showing that some of their closest Afghan friends were Taliban collaborators. Sennott writes:

Sally described the scene that day, saying, “I am getting up from the table, leaning forward and I said, ‘These men gave me back my life.’ And [Army Brigadier General Michael] Ryan leaned toward me and he said, ‘And they are taking the lives of my men.'”

Powerful stuff.

“Life, Death and the Taliban” is grounded in the news but not dependent on it. As a result, it’s a resource that is likely to be as valuable three or six months from now as it is today. More than anything, it explains the human dimension behind an incredibly complex story.

Celebrating Bhutto’s death (II)

Alert Media Nation reader T.A. has called my attention to Imaduddin Ahmed’s blog, in which he discusses his offensive op-ed about Benazir Bhutto. He writes: “A couple of readers have stated their unease about my pointing out Bhutto’s flaws so soon after her death.”

No, no, no. That’s not it at all. It’s obviously fine that he pointed out her flaws. What’s offensive is that he wrote about how glad he is that she was assassinated — as in, “Benazir’s death may offer new hope for democratic values.” It really doesn’t get any clearer than that.

Ahmed also lunges for the moral high ground and misses, writing, “I’m also offended that the deaths of artist Gulgee, 50 train passengers and over 200 flood victims didn’t mean as much to the media.”

Well, if you’re going to go all John Donne on us, Mr. Ahmed, let me just say that I’m offended that you can celebrate Bhutto’s death without bothering to note that 23 other people (in addition to the gunman) were killed as well.

And I continue to be offended that the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune would provide a forum for his piece.

Celebrating Bhutto’s death (really)

Well, this is rather interesting. The Boston Globe runs an op-ed piece today arguing that Benazir Bhutto’s assassination is a good thing. “Despite the prevailing opinion, Benazir’s death may offer new hope for democratic values: rights, the rule of law, and law enforcement,” writes Imaduddin Ahmed.

The same piece also appears in the International Herald Tribune, which, like the Globe, is owned by the New York Times Co.

Ahmed appears to be progressive (see this, for example), and the points he makes about Bhutto’s dark side are not novel. But it’s hard to see how Bhutto’s assassination stands for anything other than the denial of rights, the rule of terrorists and a failure of law enforcement.

Maybe it would be a good thing if Bhutto had departed from the Pakistani political scene (or maybe not — I claim zero expertise). But not like this.