Terms of Engagement

Documents of Mass Destruction

So what if the WikiLeaks revelations aren't the Pentagon Papers redux? They still do deep damage to President Obama's case for continuing the war.

There's a good reason why history teachers -- and I am one -- assign our students primary source material: The distinctive sound of that voice, from that place and that time, offers us an insight, or an intuition, that explanation alone cannot afford. If you want to know war, read soldiers' letters home. Or watch Restrepo. Or plow through the clotted acronyms of the 92,000 incident records from Afghanistan unearthed this week by WikiLeaks.

What is it that this vast trove of raw material tells us that we didn't know before? Already it has become a truism that the documents add little that is new, at least for those few people who spend all their time thinking about such things. And yes, the intelligence data reproduced there is second- or third-hand, and often comes from a single, generally unreliable source. And Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' founder and one-man band, views the war as a criminal enterprise and leaked the documents to "prove" it. (I heard Assange speak earlier this year, and I practically gagged on his smug self-righteousness.)

All that is true, and yet the documents matter, for much the same reason that televised images of the Vietnam War or the civil rights struggle mattered. They will make many people feel in their bones what they merely knew, or perhaps didn't know at all, before. This, in turn, will darken -- indeed, already has darkened -- the debate. The revelations will not force President Obama's hand, but they will narrow his options.

What the documents "say" will depend in part on how readers experience them. I first encountered them in Monday's New York Times. This was very, very clever of the diabolical Mr. Assange. Unlike the clip of Iraqi civilians mistakenly killed by a helicopter gunship that WikiLeaks released earlier this year, the Afghanistan documents are too massive, and too cryptic, to be self-explicating. The primary material had to be filtered, and rendered meaningful, by a trustworthy secondary source -- i.e., America's newspaper of record. The Times' twin headlines offered a brutal summation: "Pakistani Spy Unit Aiding Insurgents, Reports Suggest," and "Unvarnished Look at Hamstrung Fight." What the documents said -- or rather, what the Times said the documents said -- was, "It's even worse than we thought."

I then spent some time paddling in the vast sea of WikiLeaks' dedicated webpage in order to encounter the material directly. This proved slightly bewildering. I couldn't even find any of the damning material on Pakistani intelligence, since none of the documents are coded that way. Selecting documents according to the category to which a soldier in the field assigned it -- "murder" or "enemy action" -- only served as a reminder that the overwhelming majority of events in a war are confusing, open-ended, inconsequential. The one thing that stood out was the enormous number of documents coded "blue-white" -- coalition forces encountering civilians -- or "green-green" -- Afghan security forces encountering one another. Here were the sickening consequences of the fog of war.

The most user-friendly format I've found so far is a list of 300 "key incidents" compiled by the Guardian and laid out in a spreadsheet. The guideposts allow the reader to discern meaning in the mass.

Here's Incident 85, coded as "enemy action": "Dutch direct fire on an apparent enemy target in support of a village under Taliban attack ended tragically.  Four villagers engaged in the fight to defend Chenartu were killed and another seven wounded. The Dutch have launched an official investigation and have engaged in a proactive public relations campaign to prevent political fallout here and in the Netherlands. Although the decision to fire was justified, the danger is that, having had this action go awry, they will hesitate in the future with negative consequences for security in the province." The Hobson's choice: Go hard and risk killing civilians, enraging both Afghans and the home front, or go easy and give the Taliban free rein.

Another theme is Afghan security forces fighting one another, not by accident but on purpose: "On 21 May 08 at approximately 1700L an ANP soldier at a bazaar got into a fight with two national defense soldiers (NDS). The ANP returned to the ANPP HQ Compound to retrieve his AK-47." The intelligence officials had a heavy machine gun mounted on their vehicle, and in the ensuing firefight the police officer was killed. "Primary focus was separating the two and creating a truce between ANP and NDS leadership." Other such incidents lead to civilian casualties as well.

Then there's the notorious material about the ISI, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. Some reports sound loopy, but others seem highly plausible, both to the reporting officer and to the reader: "Credible reporting dated 22 Mar 08, indicated attacks against civil engineers and workers building roads in NIMRUZ Province are being planned. In one particular case, it was reported that the ISI ordered Serajuddin HAQQANI to eliminate Indian nationals working in AFGHANISTAN, in exchange for amounts between 15,000 and 30,000 USD. According to the same report, TB are also planning to kidnap doctors, officers (NFI), engineers and labourers who work on the roads between ZARANI and DELARAM." Each incident is questionable; it's the cumulative effect that is devastating. And this is true as well of the reports of civilian deaths at traffic checkpoints, or incompetence and corruption on the part of Afghan security forces.

In days and weeks to come, readers will be encountering this material in a million different formats, cross-indexed by degree of stupidity or brutality or absurdity; there's bound to be an iPhone app before long. The documents will infiltrate the way Americans, and of course the Dutch and everyone else, think about the war. People who view the conflict as a form of neocolonial gangsterism will probably find enough material to vindicate their bias, but a more honest reading will show that the terrible things that have happened are largely the consequence of a war fought against a brutal and deeply entrenched insurgency in a country inured to violence. Indeed, one reason why "we learn nothing new" from the documents is that, unlike in Vietnam, senior military and civilian officials have been open about the failures, even when minimizing their scope. The war that emerges from the documents doesn't look evil, but it does look almost impossible.

I recently had a conversation about counterinsurgency theory with Andrew Exum, the former Army officer turned counterinsurgency expert and advocate (whose own view of the documents is very different from mine). Exum pointed out to me that one of the leading texts on the subject, a 1964 tract by French officer David Galula called Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, argues that the ideal setting for a COIN effort is an island, where counterinsurgents can control the battle space like scientists in a laboratory. "The worst place," Exum said, "is a landlocked country surrounded by bad neighbors." Afghanistan, of course, is that place. No matter how successful you are, you can never control the battle space. An intelligence service on the other side of the border can keep undermining your best efforts, stoking and protecting the insurgency. The WikiLeaks documents offer raw proof for this general proposition.

So should we leave? Should we shift to a more modest counterterrorism strategy with fewer troops and lower expectations of nurturing a stable government in Kabul? Even before WikiLeaks, this was rapidly becoming the new default position; jumping off the COIN bandwagon has itself become the new bandwagon. Maybe it's sheer contrariness that keeps me from accepting this view. I hope not; I think it's rather the sense that allowing the Taliban to occupy and move freely around much of Afghanistan would have very bad consequences for U.S. national security. But American policymakers have less time than they had before to show success, and they have yet more public skepticism to overcome. Just as Obama must persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to open up political space, move against corruption, and decentralize power, so he must persuade Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's recently reappointed chief of army staff, to end the ISI's double game. Maybe he can't do either one. Then he should accept reality, and stop trying to do what can't be done.

 

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Terms of Engagement

Good Night, Ban Ki-Moon

The U.N. secretary-general must go.

In May 2006, Ban Ki-moon made his public debut as a candidate for U.N. secretary-general at a Q-and-A session at the Council on Foreign Relations. About 20 minutes into the event, Ban's toneless and awkward English and studiously vacuous answers had put me sound asleep. I should have realized then that he was the perfect candidate for the job.

Today, two-thirds of the way into his first term, Ban has worsted even the low expectations that attended his candidacy. States that care about the United Nations -- and above all, the United States -- should prevent him from doing further harm to the institution by ensuring that he does not serve a second term.

Ban's mediocrity is no accident. Secretaries-general, after all, are hired for negative rather than positive attributes. The second person ever appointed to the post, a previously obscure Swedish bureaucrat named Dag Hammarskjold, infused the job with his own deep sense of moral calling, fearlessly offending the world's most powerful states before being killed in a plane crash in 1961. Since then, however, the permanent members of the Security Council, which largely control the selection process, have conscientiously vetted for dynamism. Ronald Reagan's administration was quite prepared to award a third term to Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi who proved to be the most anodyne figure ever to hold the top U.N. job. But he had competition: It was said of his successor, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, that he couldn't make a splash if he fell out of a boat.

Kofi Annan, whom Clinton administration officials identified as the perfect replacement for Boutros Boutros-Ghali -- who had made himself a thorn in Washington's side -- appeared to be the perfect steward: decent, modest, clerical. And yet Annan was the first secretary-general since Hammarskjold to fire the public imagination, calling for states to respect the rights of their own citizens and championing the cause of humanitarian intervention. But Annan fell afoul of George W. Bush's administration when he opposed, if ever so diplomatically, the plan to go to war in Iraq. Opposition from the White House and the American right made the remainder of his tenure hell.

Ban Ki-moon, a colorless South Korean bureaucrat and the favored candidate of U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, was the cure for Annan's dangerous charisma. China, which exercised effective veto rights over the choice of an "Asian candidate," was equally pleased with a figure who would lower the U.N.'s profile.

With no new Iraq melodrama or four-alarm scandal, attention largely shifted away from the U.N. during Ban's first years. The first public hint that the new secretary-general was sapping the U.N.'s strength came last August, when a Norwegian newspaper printed a leaked memo from Norway's deputy U.N. representative, Mona Juul. The memo alleged that the "spineless and charmless" Ban had failed to stand up in the face of massive human rights abuses in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, instead issuing  "irresolute" appeals that "fall on deaf ears." Juul claimed that the U.N. was largely absent from the world's great crises and that Ban had lost the faith and respect of both member states and his own staff.

At the time, I asked officials at human rights organizations, U.N. ambassadors, and members of the U.N. Secretariat about the Juul memo. Few disagreed with her assessment. A peacekeeping official pointed out that Ban had insisted on behind-the-scenes diplomacy in Sri Lanka even as the government was killing thousands of civilians in its campaign to erase the brutal insurgency of the Tamil Tigers: "We're doing everything we can to avoid saying anything at all about it. That's been our line on practically everything. The SG is clear that his final consideration is going to be the political costs of whether he should or shouldn't speak." That's a very real calculation every secretary-general must make. But, he added, "There's no sense that the deliberations include, 'What should we do?'"

For all that, there was no chance that Barack Obama's administration would seek to deny a second term to the most pro-American SG in recent memory, if not ever. An administration official with whom I spoke said that though Susan Rice, the current U.S. ambassador in Turtle Bay, was disappointed with Ban's muted voice, the two worked well together and in any case it was too early to think about a new term. Certainly there was no reason to believe that China, which views the U.N. more as obstacle than instrument, was unhappy with Ban. A prominent Asian ambassador told me that he thought expectations for Ban had been set unfairly high, and he could detect little dissatisfaction in the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement, which represents developing-world opinion in the U.N.

Two things have changed since then. First, it's later: Ban's tenure finishes at the end of 2011. Second, another explosive document has emerged: the "end-of-assignment report" by Inga-Britt Ahlenius, the outgoing head of the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services, which mounts investigations into alleged wrongdoing across the entire range of U.N. bodies. Like Juul, Ahlenius alleges that the institution is "drifting into irrelevance" under Ban. But unlike Juul, Ahlenius is an insider -- and a very senior one -- and she concentrates her fire not on Ban's shortcomings as a public figure but on his institutional failures. Ahlenius accuses her boss of trying to undermine the independence of her office by refusing to allow her to hire a highly regarded and pugnacious investigator and by seeking to set up an in-house investigative body, presumably in rivalry with her own. Ban has marketed himself as a hard-headed Korean reformer, but Ahlenius angrily asserts that in his administration there is "no transparency," a "lack of accountability," and, overall, "[no] signs of reform."

Some U.N. officials to whom I've spoken view Ahlenius as a classically self-righteous prosecutor who picks fights and then launches accusations of obstruction. The merits of her specific claims are at least open to debate. What's more, even Ban's worst critics don't believe that he has tolerated corruption or sought to block investigations. In this regard, he is almost certainly a tougher leader than Annan was. But Ahlenius's broad claims still ring true: Ban has failed to drive his own reform agenda, which he has largely entrusted to Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, a marginal figure; has concentrated power inside a tiny circle of advisors; has issued edicts rather than seeking to gain consensus; and treats dissent as disloyalty. "I kept hoping things would change," one senior staff member said to me. "I've essentially given up that hope."

Ban lacks the moral leadership of a Hammarskjold or an Annan, and he can't lead his own institution either. Can the U.N. really afford another five years of his tenure? Waldheim couldn't do much harm because the U.N. just didn't matter in the 1980s. Now it does. Even Bush, for all his dim regard for multilateral bodies, sought the Security Council's imprimatur for the war in Iraq. When Annan was implicated in the oil-for-food scandal, William Safire and other American conservatives howled for blood. Their claims were wildly overblown and not a little disingenuous -- they wanted Annan's head because he wouldn't put his seal of approval on Bush's war -- but they were also a perverse tribute to the U.N.'s much-scorned legitimacy. It will be interesting to see whether conservatives' professed concern for the U.N.'s well-being will lead them to equally scathing critiques of Annan's successor.

But the only force that can dislodge Ban is the White House. Obama has repeatedly said that he needs the U.N. in order to advance his agenda on nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, and other major issues. His recently released National Security Strategy stipulates, "We need a U.N. capable of fulfilling its founding purpose -- maintaining international peace and security, promoting global cooperation, and advancing human rights."

Ban is scarcely the only obstacle to an effective U.N.; even Hammarskjold would throw up his hands in despair at the organization's current problems. But Obama simply cannot get where he wants to go with the current U.N. leadership. Administration officials should be quietly consulting China and other allies, and should be looking for candidates -- Asian or not -- with the strength and stature to lead the organization. Ban Ki-moon is not such a man.

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