The brave hope of the soldier who sent 92,000 secret documents to WikiLeaks was that the disclosure of willful, casual slaughter of civilians by coalition personnel (with ensuing cover-ups), the utter failure of “nation-building,” the venality and corruption of the coalition’s Afghan allies and the complicity of Pakistan’s intelligence services with the Taliban would cause a wave of revulsion in the United States and among its coalition allies against the war.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange skillfully arranged simultaneous publication of the secret material in The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel. The story broke on the eve of a war-funding vote in the U.S. Congress.
But on Tuesday evening, the U.S. House of Representatives said aye to a bill already passed by the Senate that funds a $33 billion, 30,000-troop escalation in Afghanistan. The vote was 308 to 114.
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To be sure, more congressmen voted against escalation than a year ago when the no’s totted up to only 35. That’s a crumb of comfort, but the cruel truth is that within 24 hours the White House and the Pentagon, with the help of influential papers like the Washington Post, had successfully finessed the salvoes from WikiLeaks.
‘WikiLeaks disclosures unlikely to change course of Afghanistan war’ was the Washington Post’s Tuesday morning headline. Beneath this headline, the news story said the leaks had been discussed for only 90 seconds at a meeting of senior commanders in the Pentagon. “Senior officials” in the White House even brazenly claimed that it was precisely his reading of these same raw intelligence reports a year ago that prompted President Obama “to pour more troops and money into a war effort that had not received sufficient attention or resources from the Bush administration.”
There’s some truth in the claim that, long before WikiLeaks, the overall rottenness and futility of the Afghan War had been graphically reported in the press. Earlier this year, for example, reporting by Jerome Starkey of the London Times blew open the U.S. military’s cover-up after special forces troops killed two pregnant Afghan women and a girl in a February 2010 raid, in which two Afghan government officials were also killed.
It’s oversell to describe the WikiLeaks package as a latter-day Pentagon Papers. But it’s undersell to dismiss the revelations as “old stories,” as detractors have been doing. The WikiLeaks file is a damning series of snapshots of a disastrous enterprise.
The sad truth is that wars are not often ended by disclosures of their horrors and futility in the press, with consequent public uproar. After Ron Ridenhour and then Seymour Hersh broke the My Lai massacre in 1968 — when more than 500 men, women and babies were methodically beaten, sexually abused, tortured and then murdered by American GIs in Vietnam — there was public revulsion, then an escalation in slaughter. The war ran for another seven years.
It is true, as Noam Chomsky pointed out to me, when I asked him for positive examples, that popular protest in the wake of press disclosures “impelled Congress to call off the direct U.S. role in the grotesque bombing of rural Cambodia. Similarly in the late ’70s, under popular pressure, Congress barred Carter, later Reagan, from direct participation in virtual genocide in the Guatemalan highlands.” Even though New York Times editors edited out the word “indiscriminate” from Thomas Friedman’s news report of Israel’s bombing of Beirut in 1982, his and other dispatches from Lebanon prompted President Reagan to order Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to stop, and he did.
But as Chomsky concluded in his note to me, “I think one will find very few such examples, and almost none in the case of really major war crimes.”
What does end wars? One side is annihilated, the money runs out, the troops mutiny, the government falls or fears it will. With the U.S. war in Afghanistan, none of these conditions has yet been met.
The U.S. began the destruction of Afghanistan in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinksi started financing the mullahs and warlords in the largest and most expensive operation in the CIA’s history until that time.
Here we are, more than three decades later, half-buried under a pile of horrifying reports about a destroyed land of desolate savagery, and what did one hear on many news commentaries earlier this week? Indignant bleats, often from liberals, about WikiLeaks’ “irresponsibility” in releasing the documents. Shoot the messenger!
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through www.counterpunch.com.
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