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How the Wikileaks Are Changing Afghan Hearts and Minds

Within hours of the release of the Wikileaks trove, I received a call from a friend in Uruzgan province, an area here in Afghanistan’s south. “Look through the files,” he said excitedly. “Finally the world will know what we have been going through.” For years he had been claiming that foreign forces had killed two of his cousins during a firefight in a village in Uruzgan, something the NATO military authorities had denied. And for years he hadn’t been able to persuade local authorities. But buried in the mountain of U.S. intelligence summaries and after-action reports was mention of an incident where troops shot eleven villagers, four fatally, in an area close to his village. The dates and other descriptions closely match my friend’s version of events.

For many Afghans, the release of thousands of secret military documents—which detail civilian casualties, corrupt officials, and meddlesome neighbors—amounts to a vindication of their view of the war. Many in the West argue the documents contain little new, and that may be true in general. But the devil resides in the details, and the details here paint a vivid and devastating picture of how Afghans view the American war.

Hatred of foreign forces, particularly in the rural Pashtun communities, has been intensifying steadily for years. On first blush this may be difficult to grasp; the Taliban, after all, tend to be quite brutal in their own right, routinely intimidating or abusing locals. But the documents offer evidence of hundreds of small incidents across the country where troops killed civilians, for failing to stop at a checkpoint, or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or simply for being. Many of these killings came in ones and twos, often too small or in too remote of an area to be reported on. But over the course of five years (the period covered in the documents), they’ve accumulated in the Afghan psyche. And when taken together with night raids and disappearances, it becomes clearer why many rural Pashtuns view the troops as a source of insecurity rather than the other way around.

But the enmity revealed by the Wikileaks dump is hardly confined to the Western presence here. Many Afghans also detest the neighbors along country’s border, with a special animosity reserved for Pakistan. True, the documents contain no smoking gun in this regard. Much of the reporting on Pakistan’s role, for instance, comes from Afghan intelligence agents eager to paint their neighbor with the worst possible brush. This, in turn, generates accounts of sensational episodes, such as ISI attempts to poison Western beer supplies and ludicrously elaborate schemes to assassinate President Hamid Karzai. Many of the files contain detailed warnings about ISI-planned attacks, almost none of which came to fruition. The reports jibe neatly, however, with the popular impression of Pakistan here, according to which the country functions as the éminence grise of Afghan politics, cleverly manipulating Afghanistan’s assorted factions for its own gain. “Pakistan doesn’t want us to be at peace,” one Afghan friend recently told me. “The only way it can achieve its goals here is if we are at perpetual war. Now people will talk more about Pakistan’s role, which means the leaks are good news.”

Yet in Afghanistan, even good news brings adversity. Shortly after news of the Wikileaks trove spread over the airwaves, I received a phone call from another friend, his voice filled with trepidation. Four years ago, he had told the foreign forces where to find a hidden weapons cache—Afghans often offer such information in return for cash payments. But Wikileaks failed, criminally, to redact the names of these Afghans, making them an inevitable target of Taliban reprisals. My friend knew all too well what happens to Afghans suspected of collaborating with the foreign forces—when his friend was caught carrying a GPS last year, insurgents marched him to an open field, shot him nine times and then announced that anyone who tried to bury the body would also be shot.

My friend lives now in Kabul and, thanks to Wikileaks, will most likely never return to his home province. Oddly enough, though, he praises Wikileaks for the release, condemning only the exposure and imperiling of civilians informants like himself. So it may be that the leaks cut through Afghanistan like a double-edged sword, producing some good and, as with most everything else that comes from abroad, a lot of bad. “It’s always like this with foreigners here,” my friend from Uruzgan told me. “Things are great at first, but the real damage comes only later.”