Argument

Blood on Our Hands

Newly released war documents show how the U.S. military, in cable after grim cable, painstakingly chronicled Iraq's descent into bloody Shiite-on-Sunni violence. So why did top officials deny the obvious?

In early March 2006, Donald Rumsfeld called a Pentagon news conference to declare Iraq peaceful -- and to say that U.S. reporters in Baghdad were liars for reporting otherwise.

Contrary to the jumble of "exaggerated" reporting from Baghdad, the then-secretary of defense said at the Washington press briefing, Iraq was experiencing no such thing as the explosion of sectarian violence that myself and many of my fellow journalists in Baghdad were covering in the aftermath of a fateful February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Certainly, some Iraqis were trying to incite civil war, Rumsfeld acknowledged. But Iraq's own security forces had "taken the lead in controlling the situation," he insisted, and quick action by the Shiite-led government had "a calming effect."

Rumsfeld also made clear at the time that U.S. officials were fighting another kind of war over Iraq -- the battle for U.S. opinion. The "misreporting" on the death toll was driving down U.S. support for the war, the defense secretary complained.

Four years on, however, WikiLeaks' release of contemporary troop logs raises serious questions about who, exactly, was doing the lying.

One of the few absolute revelations from the Wikileaks documents is the extent to which Rumsfeld, then-U.S. commander Gen. George Casey, and others had access to ample information from unimpeachable sources -- their own troops on the ground in Iraq -- regarding how badly events had turned in Iraq by 2006, but nonetheless denied a surge in killing to reporters and the U.S. public.

"The country is not awash in sectarian violence,'' Casey told one U.S. television network in the wake of the Samarra bombing. And talk of Iraq sliding into civil war? "I don't see it happening, certainly anytime in the near term,'' Casey said.

But in hundreds of terse log entries from the field -- now made public by WikiLeaks -- U.S. troops documented more comprehensively than we reporters could ever have hoped the explosion of retaliatory killings, kidnappings, tortures, mosque attacks, and open street fighting. The reports streamed in the hours and days after the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra enraged Iraq's Shiite militias. What we reported then has now been confirmed: The bombing transformed Iraq's building sectarian violence into something even darker.

In one of scores of entries recording U.S. troops coming upon handcuffed, tortured bodies on Feb. 22, 2006, and in the days after, a U.S. officer recounted happening upon fighters as they threw bodies from a car. The commander was in time to note how fresh the corpses were: "BODIES WERE SHOT IN THE FACE AND BODIES WERE STILL WARM," he wrote.  

In fact, U.S. soldiers in Iraq saw and heard the eruption of civil war in Iraq from the first minutes. According to one of the tense, redacted log entries logging the moment of the mosque bombing, "AT ___ 0701C FEB ___, THERE WERE 2X AUDIBLE EXPLOSIONS THAT WERE REPORTED FROM A MOUNTED PATROL … THE ROOF OF THE GOLDEN MOSQUE HAD COLLAPSED."

By the afternoon of Feb. 22, 2006, U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, Basra, Diyala, and around central Iraq were recording dozens of retaliatory attacks with grenade launchers and small arms on mosques, and the outbreak of tense, angry demonstrations countrywide. (The log entries below are a sampling; pages of more such log entries for Feb. 22 and the days after can be found on www.wikileaks.org. An article I wrote for the Daily Beast gives a shorter version of the log entries.)

Not always comprehendingly, U.S. soldiers noted the massing protesters often were the armed and black-clad fighters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's feared Mahdi Army militia.

One report read:

"2006-02-23 08:25:00../././ AT 231425FEB2006, -/___ REPORTED AN ARMED DEMONSTRATION IN THE SAL AD DIN PROVINCE IN THE CITY OF ___ AT ___. THE MAJORITY OF THE DEMONSTRATORS ARE DRESSED IN BLACK AND ARE WEARING HOODS. THEY ARE PRIMARILY ___ AND ARE DEMONSTRATING THE RECENT ATTACK ON THE GOLDEN MOSQUE. THEY ARE ARMED WITH AK-___…"

In another incident elsewhere:

"___ INSURGENTS ARE PREPARING THEMSELVES FOR AN ENCOUNTER WITH ___ MILITIA IN //:___//. THE ___ INSURGENTS BELIEVE ___ MILITIA FROM BALAD //:___// AND BAGHDAD ARE HEADING TOWARDS ___ TO ENGAGE ___ IN RETALIATION FOR THE BOMBING OF THE GOLDEN MOSQUE //:___// IN ___. THE ___ INSURGENTS FROM AREAS NEAR ___ ARE EQUIPPING THEMSELVES AND HEADING TOWARDS THE ___ TO ENTER ___, NFI…"

The reports persisted, enough that the military seems to have given them a distinct heading, "Golden Mosque."

One of the WikiLeaks log entries, for 3:30 p.m. on the day of the mosque bombing, shows apparent Mahdi Army fighters posing as Iraqi Interior Ministry officials to take away Sunni prisoners from a police jail. "PRISONERS ARE NOW DEAD," the report noted:

AT 222335C FEB ___, IT WAS CONFIRMED BY PJOC THAT ___ PRISONERS HAD BEEN TAKEN FROM ___ POLICE STATION. AT ___, PJOC REPORTED THAT ___ ARRIVED AT ___ IN VEHICLES. THEY CLAIMED TO BE MEMBERS OF THE MINISTRY OF INTERIOR AND SECURED ___ PRISONERS RELEASE, BY THE USE OF FALSE MOI DOCUMENTS. ALL PRISONERS WERE HELD IN CELL ___. PJOC HAVE SENT THROUGH THE NAMES OF THE PRISONERS AND RECORDS THOSE WHO ARE PREVIOUSLY KNOWN TO MNF. PRISONERS ARE NOW DEAD AND ___ PRISONERS CRITICALLY INJURED. ___ DEAD AND ___ CASUALTIES FOUND BETWEEN GREEN ___ GREEN ___ AND ___ DEAD AND ___ CASUALTIES FOUND BETWEEN BLUE ___ AND RED ___. ALL PRISONERS ARE OF ___ RELIGION. IPS ARE CHECKING WHO IS DEAD AND WHO IS IN HOSPITAL. THE PERSONNEL THAT TOOK THE PRISONERS FROM ___ HAD MOI IDENTIFICATION. ‘'

In the streets of Iraq's capital, open fighting erupted between Shiite fighters -- known as the Mahdi Army, or Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) --and Sunni men of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party:

"AT 221410CFEB06 THERE WAS A ___ BETWEEN JAM AND THE IIP (IRAQI ___ PARTY) AT BLUE ___. TSU HAVE BEEN TASKED TO THE SCENE. THE IIP BUILDING CAUGHT ON FIRE."

Soon, troops were reporting bodies in the streets of Baghdad. Without necessarily seeking them out, U.S. troops were coming across dozens of them. Half pages and full pages of such finds made their way into the logs, in numbing repetition:

# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00

MURDER, MND-BAGHDAD, 2 CASUALTIES

IP LOCATED 2X UNK MALE CORPSES IN THE ___ AREA OF BAGHDAD. VICTIMS WERE SHOT IN THE ___. REMAINS TAKEN TO FORENSIC MEDICINE DEPARTMENT.…

--

# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00

MURDER, MND-SE, 1 CASUALTIES

--

UNK # AIF OPERATING 2X ___ CAB PICKUPS KIDNAPPED ___ (SELF-EMPLOYED). HIS BODY WAS LATER FOUND SHOT (UNK LOCATION). REMAINS SENT TO LOCAL MORGUE.…

--

# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00

MURDER, MND-SE, 1 CASUALTIES

--

5X AIF WEARING BLACK UNIFORMS AND OPERATING A ___ CAB WHITE ___ KIDNAPPED ___ IN THE ___ AREA OF ___ BASRAH. . '___ BODY WAS FOUND SHOT IN THE ___ 0730C FEB ___. REMAINS TAKEN TO LOCAL MORGUE.…

--

# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00

MURDER, MND-SE, 1 CASUALTIES

1X MALE BODY ( , ___) FOUND IN THE ___ AREA OF BASRAH. VICTIM WAS SHOT IN THE ___ BY UNK MEN WEARING BLACK UNIFORMS AND OPERATING A ___ PICKUP. REMAINS SENT TO LOCAL MORGUE.…

--

# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00

MURDER, MND-C, 2 CASUALTIES

A CITIZENS REPORTS THAT THERE ARE MULTIPLE BODIES IN THE ___ VILLAGE NEAR THE ___.…

--

# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00

MURDER, MND-BAGHDAD, 2 CASUALTIES

2X UNIDENTIFIED MALE BODIES WERE FOUND SHOT. THEY WERE APPROXIMATELY -___ YEARS OLD.…

--

# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00

MURDER, MND-BAGHDAD, 1 CASUALTIES

--

1X UNK MALE CORPSE (APPROX. /___) FOUND SHOT IN THE ___ NEAR A GAS STATION IN THE ___ AREA OF ___. BODY TAKEN TO ___ HOSPITAL. NO NAME REPORTED.…

--

# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00

MURDER, MND-BAGHDAD, 1 CASUALTIES

1X UNK MALE CORPSE FOUND IN ___. VICTIM WAS SHOT IN THE ___. REMAINS TAKEN TO THE LOCAL MORGUE. NO NAME REPORTED.…

--

# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00

MURDER, 0, 2 CASUALTIES

2X BODIES WERE FOUND IN DIYALA PROVINCE BY MNF. THEY WERE TAKEN TO THE LOCAL IPS IN THE AREA. BOTH WERE EMPLOYEES OF THE ELECTRIC DEPARTMENT OF ___. THEIR NAMES ARE ___ AND ___.…

On Feb. 23, the day after the mosque bombing, a log entry notes soldiers finding a mass grave with 47 bodies at Baghdad.

But many of those bodies wound up in the Baghdad morgue, which was administered by the Health Ministry. The Health Ministry was run by Sadr's own Shiite party, which had political, religious, and military (read: death squad) wings.

In the days after the Samarra bombing, my colleagues and I at the Washington Post made repeated trips to the morgue. I first stopped at the ministry's office at the morgue, where officials there told me the death toll was minimal.

We then went around to the part of the building where the bodies were kept. Families, mostly Sunni, thronged the morgue, desperately searching for brothers, fathers, and sons taken away by militias. The computer registrar told the families to be patient. The morgue had taken in more than 1,000 bodies since the mosque bombing, he said. It was behind on processing them.

A U.N. official also gave me the figure of more than 1,000 dead. An Iraqi government official gave the same figure to one of our Iraqi reporters. Based on that number, our trips to the morgue, our trips Feb. 22 to see the massing Shiite militias in Sadr City, interviews with Sunni families who had had relatives kidnapped, and other reporting, I wrote that sectarian violence had exploded in Baghdad, with more than 1,300 killed. Colleagues wrote similar stories, but citing the lower official death toll of 300-plus, given by the Shiite-led government and the Sadr-run Health Ministry.

In Baghdad, Casey immediately denied the reports -- particularly my death toll in the 1,300 range. A U.S. military release issued March 19, 2006 described Casey going out on a three-hour drive around Baghdad to investigate the reports of mayhem himself. The U.S. commander recounted "a lot of bustle, a lot of economic activity. Store fronts crowded, goods stacked up on the street.'' He didn't mention his troops finding handcuffed bodies.

In fact, the troop logs, in their stunning detail and volume, make it clear we were underreporting the extent of the killing in Baghdad. And all the killing, the logs show, took place amid hourly bomb attacks on Iraqi and U.S. forces, amid daily "escalation of force" and "defense" shootings in which U.S. troops were firing on Iraqis. Iraq appeared far, far messier in the troop logs than in the weekly briefings in the Green Zone.

Asked through an aide Monday about the documenting of the violence shown in the WikiLeaks reports, Casey, now the Army chief of staff, declined comment. Rumsfeld did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An aide acknowledged receiving it.

At the Pentagon, Defense Department spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said in an email that the military would have used tactical reports such as the ones shown in the WikiLeaks logs to brief Casey and other higher-ups. "The reports themselves generally wouldn't get to GEN Casey (or above)," Lapan wrote.

"I would caution against drawing Iraq-wide or even regional conclusions from the snapshots in these reports," Lapan wrote.

As the Sunni-Shiite war raged on in the months after the mosque bombing, Casey, Rumsfeld, and other officials eventually found fewer buyers for their claims that Iraq was going well. Abruptly, the public mood turned.

The higher death tolls during the aftermath of the Samarra bombing seem now to have won official acceptance. Last fall, a former Bush administration official said matter-of-factly in a seminar I attended that violence in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing had killed more than 1,000 people in a single day.

On Monday, Lapan, the Pentagon spokesman, sent along a military report with a graph showing civilian deaths from violence in Iraq topping 2,500 in February 2006, sourced to "coalition and Iraqi forces." Furiously denied at the time, Iraq's bloody sectarian civil war was already making its way into the history books.

Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES

Argument

Smoke and Mirrors in Kabul

Don't believe the hype about reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban -- this war isn't even close to over.

For the past two weeks, reputable U.S. and British newspapers have been filled with articles touting progress in negotiations between the government in Kabul and Afghanistan's major insurgent groups. On Oct. 20, for example, the New York Times reported that Afghan reconciliation talks "involve extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group's leadership." These articles have been accompanied by optimistic reports that the United States and its NATO allies have decimated the Taliban's leadership in southern Afghanistan.

As someone who has fought in Afghanistan on two occasions and served briefly as a civilian advisor to the NATO command group there in 2009, I hope the reports are true. The idea that an end to the fighting in Afghanistan and the involvement of the 100,000 U.S. troops in the country might be just around the corner is seductive. However, there is good reason to be skeptical of the reporting coming out of Kabul and Washington.

Civil wars and insurgencies such as the one in Afghanistan usually end through some kind of negotiated settlement between the antagonists. The United States' war-weary public is clearly eager to bring the majority of U.S. troops home, and the NATO command in Afghanistan has prioritized reconciliation just as much as fighting the Taliban and training the Afghan national security forces. Much time has been spent determining both the red lines of NATO and its Afghan partners and those areas in which they could compromise with the insurgent groups.

But Afghans are perfectly comfortable talking while still fighting. So too, at least in practice, are the United States and its allies: In insurgencies from Vietnam to Northern Ireland, we have negotiated with insurgents while combat operations were ongoing. In the American public's mind, however, wars take place sequentially: First, you fight; second, you negotiate a settlement. The word "negotiations" conjures up hopes for an end to the conflict in the minds of Americans and other Westerners -- when all that really might be occurring is another round of jockeying for position between Afghanistan's warring political forces.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who carried out an otherwise responsible review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in the fall of 2009, blundered when he publicly announced that the United States would begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011. Within the ranks of Afghanistan's insurgent groups and even among our allies and the civilians in the country, this date was interpreted to mean that a total withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces was imminent. No insurgent group, to paraphrase defense analyst Stephen Biddle, was about to accept a loaf of bread when the bakery was on offer. Why would the Taliban and other insurgent groups negotiate when the United States was on its way out already?

The problem of Afghanistan's varied insurgent groups also complicates reconciliation talks. Of the three principal insurgent groups, only Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) might be considered ripe for any kind of reconciliation with the government in Kabul. But the HIG is arguably the least significant of the major insurgent groups, and even then, Gulbuddin himself would not likely be allowed to play a role in an Afghan government.

Of the other two groups, the Haqqani network, under the leadership of Sirajuddin Siraj Haqqani, maintains strong ties to al Qaeda and is considered more or less irreconcilable, while the Quetta Shura Taliban is thought to be reconcilable only if Mullah Mohammed Omar himself approves of the reconciliation process. The insurgents in Afghanistan are no more unitary an actor than the Afghan government or the NATO coalition, further complicating negotiations.

  

All that, to make matters worse, assumes the insurgent groups are independent actors. The reality, though, is that negotiations between the insurgent groups and the government in Kabul will only go so far as the Pakistani security services allow. Some Western analysts took heart in Pakistan's decision in February to arrest Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. At the time, however, the arrest of Mullah Baradar, who was in negotiations with the government in Kabul, was interpreted by the Taliban rank and file to be a stark warning to those who would negotiate without the permission of the Pakistani government, under whose patronage and protection the Taliban has operated east of the Durand Line since 2005. Today it is widely accepted that this was indeed the case and that Pakistan deliberately thwarted negotiations between the Quetta Shura Taliban and the government in Kabul to serve its own parochial interests. Since that event, there is no sign that Pakistan's powerful military has taken a softer line on negotiations between the Taliban and the government in Kabul.

Finally, if one surveys the history of civil wars and insurgencies, the evidence for negotiations leading to a more secure environment -- without robust security operations first setting the conditions for those negotiations -- is weak. The way the U.S. military established control over the population in Baghdad in 2007, by contrast, contributed to an environment that not only led formerly malign Sunni insurgents to join local security forces, but also provided time and space for a more peaceful political process to move forward.

But here a sliver of hope remains. Although the reporting of how the United States and its allies have "routed" the Taliban in southern Afghanistan has been very thinly sourced, it is clear the U.S. military has been attempting, in Afghanistan, to replicate the success it had in Iraq in 2007 -- destroying the mid-level operational leadership of the insurgent groups, which in turn collapsed the networks and rendered them ineffective.

However, very little of what is taking place in southern Afghanistan can be known with any certainty. Journalists have been denied access to ongoing military operations and, though it is believed that the U.S. military and its allies have indeed been degrading the Taliban and its ability to reconstitute its organization once the fighting season resumes in the spring, questions remain: Did the U.S. military wait until too late in the fighting season to inflict serious damage on the Taliban before its fighters withdrew for the winter? Is the current drop in insurgent attacks any different from the normal seasonal drop in attacks that precedes the onset of winter? Is the degradation of the Taliban's organization forcing it to the negotiation table? And has the Taliban realized that the United States is not, in fact, leaving in July 2011?

It might be quite some time before we know the answers to these questions. For now, though, we can be sure of one thing: The two hopeful front-page articles in the New York Times this week relied heavily, almost exclusively, on sources within the International Security Assistance Force command in Kabul. Both articles suggest that the ability of Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, to deliver the message he wants via the U.S. media has followed him intact from Iraq. It is still unclear whether the United States and its allies have managed to capture momentum in Afghanistan. In Washington, however, this narrative already appears to have won the day.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images