Once again the New York Times and other mainstream-media organs are lending their credibility and circulation — what they have left of it, anyway — to the massively irresponsible publication of secret U.S. military documents by an organization run by Julian Assange — an accused rapist, convicted hacker, and (by the Times‘s own account) all-around creep.
As with the previous data dump relating to the Afghan War, the documents about the Iraq War don’t tell us much that we didn’t already know in broad outline. While they may well compromise “sources and methods,” to use the intelligence terminology, they are hardly a revelation to anyone who has been paying attention.
Today’s headlines, for example, are about the deaths of Iraqi civilians caused mainly by other Iraqis but also, in some instances, by U.S. forces. Civilians dying in war: hardly a shocker. One of the few things that made me raise an eyebrow while reading the voluminous accounts this morning was this off-hand observation offered by Times reporters Sabrina Tavernise and Andrew Lehren in their first-page story:
The documents also reveal many previously unreported instances in which American soldiers killed civilians — at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. Such killings are a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country, a situation that is now being repeated in Afghanistan.
How many bogus premises can you pack into a sentence? Start with the claim that killings of civilians were “a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country.” What evidence do Tavernise and Lehren have for this assertion, I wonder? My analysis, as someone who has been traveling to Iraq since 2003 and has followed the war closely, is that Iraqis turned against the American presence — to the extent that they did — primarily because U.S. troops did not do a better job of imposing law and order. The mainly accidental deaths caused by U.S. forces were, at most, a small contributing factor both to the tide of violence enveloping Iraq and to the disenchantment of the Iraqi people with the state of their country after Saddam Hussein’s downfall. The overwhelming majority of civilian deaths were caused by Sunni and Shiite terrorists, as most Iraqis know perfectly well. The U.S. failure to check their excesses led to a souring of Iraqi opinion regarding the American troop presence but as soon as the U.S. reestablished order during the 2007-2008 “surge,” confidence in the U.S. military has soared. Ordinary Iraqis now trust U.S. forces more than their own — and for good reason, given some of the gruesome behavior attributed to Iraqi forces in the leaked documents.
Now we come to the second part of that sentence: the claim that this situation (which, as I pointed out, didn’t actually exist in Iraq) “is now being repeated in Afghanistan.” Have Tavernise and Lehren missed entirely the past year and a half of reporting out of Afghanistan by their own newspaper and many others? If they had been paying attention, they would know that Gen. Stanley McChrystal put a high priority on limiting civilian casualties caused by U.S. forces — even at the cost of sometimes exposing U.S. troops to greater risk. He succeeded in reducing civilian deaths precisely in order to not alienate the population. His directives on the careful use of force have largely been continued by Gen. Petraeus, who has been able to ramp up kinetic operations without causing a big spike in civilian casualties.
It’s rather ironic that in chronicling documents that are supposed to expand our knowledge about the Iraq War, Tavernise and Lehren actually detract from any public understanding of this vital subject.