The Spoils of War

A decade after publication, what have we really learned from the Afghan and Iraq War Diaries?

By Lital Khaikin
Published in Volume 1, Issue 5 of The Sparkplug
December 2020


“Dead Bastards”

What has changed about the memory of the wrongfully murdered civilians in Iraq since the words of a US Air force crew resounded around the world? Perhaps it was the primacy of US killings laid bare that triggered the public outrage to the now infamous “Collateral Murder1 video that was released by Wikileaks in April 2010. On July 12, 2007, US soldiers shot from an Apache helicopter over a suburb of Baghdad killing 11 civilians, including a Reuters photographer and his fixer, and wounding two children. Look at those dead bastards.

Thousands of war logs published as the Afghan and Iraq War Diaries exposed the crimes committed by US troops, the complicity of NATO allies, and undermined the establishment narratives that both justified perpetual war and manipulated the public into believing these campaigns were more successful in eradicating “terrorism” than they really were. The significance of the logs has been diminished in mainstream media over the years, amid the more persistent character attacks on Assange that have distracted from the substance of the publications, the role of his journalism, and even continued analysis of the leaked documents themselves.

Wikileaks’ release of the Afghan and Iraq War Diaries has been condemned for revealing the names of informants working abroad for the US within the massive archives, but more insidiously, also for turning the public support of entire nations away from the US-led wars. When the War Diaries were released, US veterans from Iraq Veterans Against the War—many of whom were deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan—condemned the lack of accountability and described the incidents on film2 as “not isolated cases of ‘a few bad soldiers’ but rather, part of the nature of these wars.”

The superseding indictment of May 20193 against Julian Assange assumes the intention of the War Diaries’ publication: “with reason to believe that the information was to be used to the injury of the United States or the advantage of any foreign nation”. This is a crucial point, as it suggests that publications that don’t serve the exclusive interests of the United States are public enemy number one. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who has so aggressively pursued billions in arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—accused WikiLeaks of being a “hostile intelligence service4 in his first speech as CIA Director in 2017.

As a publisher and clearinghouse of documents, this is an insidious claim to make against Wikileaks, opening the door for accusations of espionage and “hostile intelligence” for other publications that deign to make public the reality of western military operations, and shatter official narratives that justify these wars.  

Yet, a war waged in the name of “anti-terrorism” inevitably unveiled itself to be a geopolitical power-grab over the vast resources of the Middle East and Central Asia. As historian Rashid Khalidi wrote in Resurrecting Empire— published shortly after the US invasion of Iraq—decrying the imperialist invasions of the Middle East has been construed by politicians as supporting ‘anti-Americanism’: “Claims that the United States might be engaging in imperialist behavior meet indignant rejections in these quarters, usually leavened with insults about the “anti-Americanism” and lack of patriotism of those making these assertions”.

Certainly this continues to resonate in the rhetoric used against Wikileaks, and opposition not only to perpetual wars but economic and political interventions staged by the US and its allies as “defending democracy”. It also hits close to home, as over the past few years, the research branch of the Canadian military has been quietly funding development of a tool to screen social media5 for supposedly “anti-western” rhetoric.

Canadians were barraged with propaganda that claimed the war was, in the words of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a “noble and necessary8 cause. Yet, in a convenient erasure of history, the Canadian government website that outlines the history of Canada’s involvement9 describes the Taliban coming to power after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the 80s, but fails to mention the US role of funding and arming their early cells (not even the heat-seeking Stinger missiles that the CIA supplied and later failed to buy back, suddenly remembered by US media10 after the 9/11 attacks).

While Wikileaks confirmed the widespread use of torture in the Afghan and Iraq Wars, significant evidence existed before the publication, pointing to the consistent disregard for human life and dignity, and complicity shown by NATO allies throughout their engagement. The realities of Abu Ghraib, for example, were explored in depth by journalist Seymour Hersh who, in his 2004 book Chain of Command, described a pattern of activity linking the interrogation processes in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iraq War Diaries ultimately confirmed the extent to which US officials ignored evidence11 of torture.

Canada, one of the early proponents of the UN Convention Against Torture, was not too concerned about being an instrument to torture in these campaigns. Canadian troops notoriously transferred Afghan detainees to US and Afghan forces under Afghanistan’s Karzai government, knowing that they would be tortured. Canadian officials denied evidence of abuse in Afghan prisons and refused to monitor prisoners12 until 2007—even going against the explicit advice of its own generals.

Wikileaks also contributed to lifting the veil on the manufactured narrative of Iraq’s widespread development of weapons of mass destruction that justified the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. Convinced of yet another noble mission, Canada joined the US-led offensive in 2003, providing far more tactical support13 than Canadian politicians initially let on. Today, an undisclosed number of Canadian troops still remain in the country, stationed at a US base14 in Erbil, Kurdistan.

Despite the years of unfolding evidence of torture and murder of civilians, the impunity with which NATO forces operate in the Middle East has not diminished. Most recently, outgoing US President Donald Trump granted pardon to four Blackwater contractors15 who had opened in indiscriminate fire—with machine guns, grenades, and sniper fire—on a crowd of civilians in Iraq in 2004. Earlier in September, the US had also blacklisted16 International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda for her decisive action to investigate war crimes committed by the Taliban, and Afghan and US forces in Afghanistan.    

Canada remains involved in restructuring Afghanistan, claiming that additional funding announced on November 24, 202017 is committed to the “expansion of progress made over the past 19 years, most notably on the rights of women and girls, the rule of law and democratic institutions.” But what 19 years of progress does this refer to, with the Taliban’s continued hold on power, much less the deteriorated rights of women and girls?

As journalist and historian Steve Coll wrote in Ghost Wars—his exhaustive study of the US administration’s role and evolution since the CIA started putting bounties on Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan—the Taliban’s misogynistic regulations against women as they gained greater power in the 90s were met with “little protest” from the US State Department, as cables from Washington showed that the US hoped to “engage the new Taliban ‘interim government’ at an early stage”. In Canada, the rights and economic opportunities of women and girls are an oft-cited impetus for non-profits, foundations and private contractors to receive millions in funding from Global Affairs Canada, in countries where the US has waged or attempted coups and economic reforms.

Birds of a feather

Mounting evidence of NATO allies’ war crimes continues to be made public, with the appalling findings on the conduct of Australian Defence Forces (ADF), who were deployed to Orūzgān province in Afghanistan. Despite a purported focus on reconstruction activities18 in the country since 2002, the recent publication of the Brereton report confirms the unlawful killings of at least 39 people19 by Australian soldiers, and mistreatment of two non-combatants that could amount to war crimes.

The heavily redacted20 Brereton report was published on November 19, following a detailed four-year investigation by Australian judge and Army reserve Major General Paul Brereton. The report describes the practice of “blooding” by Australian Special Forces – a rite of passage where patrol commanders required junior soldiers21 to shoot and slit the throats of farmers and civilians to initiate their first kill. In response to the crimes described in the report, Australia’s Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, confirmed: “None were alleged to have occurred in circumstances in which the intent of the perpetrator was unclear, confused or mistaken. And every person spoken to by the Inquiry thoroughly understood the Law of Armed Conflict and the Rules of Engagement under which they operated. These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values.”

Commissioned by the ADF, Brereton’s report is also informed by the findings covering the period of 2005-2016 by Australian military sociologist Dr. Samantha Crompvoets. Initially conducting research on the culture of Australian Special Forces, Crompvoets documented the first-hand testimonies of veterans as they revealed to her a widespread practice22 of killing civilians.

The revelations should be of great concern for Canadians, as Australia is one of Canada’s closest allies. Since the publication of the Brereton report, however, Canada’s response has predictably been to pacify the public, instead of outright condemn a NATO ally’s perpetration of war crimes. 

The collaboration between Canadian and Australian forces in Afghanistan in light of the report has likewise been downplayed by the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM). As Global News reported on November 24, a spokesperson stated23: “CANSOFCOM was not aware of these allegations until this inquiry was launched. No concerns were raised by CANSOFCOM personnel who worked with their ADF counterparts in Afghanistan.” That no concerns were raised is concerning on its own, suggesting that if Canadian personnel knew of the Australian Special Forces’ practice of blooding, their silence helped cover up the Australian war crimes. This would be consistent with the ADF’s own “code of silence24 in Special Operations Task Groups.

Additional reports from a Dutch veteran whistleblower this December also reveal how the Dutch military may have killed civilians in Orūzgān, where they were deployed with the Australians. Dutch prosecutors are presently investigating allegations by a veteran that commanders violated the Dutch army’s rules of engagement25 to order him to fire heavy artillery at a house of civilians in the Chora Valley in 2007.

The statement by the US Iraq Veterans Against War a decade ago, triggered by the Wikileaks publication, continues to resonate. It’s not a matter of a few ‘bad apples’, but the nature of these wars, and lack of accountability, that has revealed a glaring hypocrisy when western countries commit human rights atrocities with impunity.

Ten years after Wikileaks released the war diaries, the US is still embroiled in Afghanistan. Photograph by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images.

The hand that feeds

Far from combatting extremism through the “War on Terror”, the US and its allies have seeded poverty and deepened resentment, fueled illicit human and drug trafficking, and spurred wider proliferated of weapons. In a self-perpetuating cycle, this growth of violent extremism appears to justify ever more ‘counter-insurgency’ interventions.

The US and Taliban (or the unrecognized Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) signed an agreement26 on February 29, 2020 which outlines a plan for US and Coalition withdrawal of troops; the release of prisoners; lobbying the UN for removal of sanctions and rewards on members of the Taliban; security cooperation between the US and Taliban; and “positive relations … between the United States and the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government”. A second round of peace talks27 between the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government is currently scheduled to begin on January 5 in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban has maintained a political office in Qatar since 2013, while the country has long provided financial aid28 and haven to members of the Taliban and al-Qaida, as well as the al-Nusra Front operating in Syria.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised questions around the withdrawal of other NATO troops by May 1, 2021—while also pointing toward the deteriorating cohesion and integrity of the NATO alliance. As journalist Murray Brewster reported29 on November 24, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s statement on other NATO members having to make a “decision” on staying or leaving may inaccurately suggest that they have a genuine choice: “Stoltenberg staked his ground on the possibly quaint notion that the alliance is free to make its own collective decision about whether to follow the U.S. out the door next spring.”

As development researcher Hanif Sufizada summarized earlier this month30, the Taliban reportedly brought in $1.6 billion in the fiscal year that ended in March 2020, with the majority of their income coming from opium production and mining overseen by the Da Dabaro Commission (the Taliban’s Stone and Mines Commission). With not only rich oil, iron and copper deposits, but substantial known deposits of lithium  that have been compared to Bolivia’s31 and valued shortly after discovery in 2007 at nearly $1 trillion32, the “positive relations” the US seeks with the Taliban and Afghan government are thrown into stark contrast against the neoliberal reforms that Washington and NATO-funded non-profits and foundations have so carefully nursed with “stabilization” programs in the country.

Even the withdrawal of troops may prove to be superficial. The withdrawal of US troops that were stationed in Somalia earlier this year was simply a shift into Kenya and Djibouti33. Similarly, as Omar al Bashir’s government moved to normalize relations with Israel and pay out $335 million in damages for the 1998 Embassy attacks, Trump agreed to remove sanctions34 on Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism. But the US role in Sudan has long been downplayed by mainstream media, from the domino effect of the CIA’s early sponsorship of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan through the 80s to how the CIA watched over Osama bin Laden’s terrorist training camps in Sudan, planting the early seeds of some of the deepest problems with extremism that have since plagued the Sahel region. 

How successful has this “War on Terror” been when branches of al-Qaida have spread far through Central and Southeast Asia, to the Caucasus, and throughout Northern Africa? Across Northern Africa, the sustained conflict from al-Qaida and ISIS branches gives incentive for colonial forces to remain stationed, where there are major stakes by NATO members and private corporations in African resources. Just look at Mali36, where the French military maintains its counter-terrorism mission, clearly unable or unwilling to deal with the al-Qaida and ISIS cells that have only grown and spread deeper through the Sahel, while activists cry foul on the corruption of the African Union and the vast privatization imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as signs of African progress and democracy. Meanwhile, these al-Qaida and ISIS cells have been largely armed by weapons that were smuggled out of Ghaddafi’s storehouses following the US coup in Libya.

Amid this rotation of US and NATO troops through ceaseless wars that have done more to seed violence than end it, what is the real legacy of Wikileaks and the War Diaries? As inconvenient as it is for those who make their business on war, the leaks undermined the arrogant banner of the “War on Terror” and the “democratic values” espoused by the NATO coalition, awakening the public to the behavior of politicians, commanders, and troops waging war in our names and funded with our money. And as Canada continues to arm the Saudi and UAE coalition in a proxy war in Yemen that continues to claim civilian lives, what can we honestly say we have learned? How many more “dead bastards” can we continue to justify?