Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Transparency on Afghan war is good for democracy

Originally posted by ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director, Carol Rose, on Boston.com.

The release of thousands of pages of defense department reports on the U.S. war in Afghanistan is good for democracy and for our nation.

Not since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon papers on the failing war in Vietnam have we witnessed the importance of transparency in forcing our democracy to engage in an honest and public debate about a war that is costing billions in tax dollars and incalculable loss of human life.

So far, Obama administration officials haven't been foolish enough to try to block the publication of the Afghanistan war documents or threaten prosecution of Wikileaks or The New York Times, as Nixon did in the Pentagon paper case. Nonetheless, Obama administration officials sound remarkably similar to their counterparts in the Nixon administration when they assert that release of the documents will hurt the war effort

This is nonsense. In the first place, Wikileaks and the other news outlets went to extraordinary lengths to expunge the papers of information that would endanger our troops or even Afghan informants. In contrast to the Pentagon papers case, this leak involves no high level military secrets.

Moreover, there is nothing in the released papers that isn't already known to the Afghans, U.S. troops, or anyone who has spent any time in that part of the world.

Having lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, for a number of years in the 1990s, I can attest personally that we knew even then that the Pakistani secret Inter-Services Intelligence agency -- ISI -- was manipulating Afghan alliances behind the scenes to ensure that India stayed out, Afghanistan stayed down, and American money kept flowing. It was common knowledge then, as now, that the U.S. government knew this and nonetheless covertly funneled money to the ISI.

What was obvious to those of us on the ground in Peshawar and Kabul became widely known in America years later when Hollywood released the movie, Charlie Wilson's War, which portrayed the double-dealing and factional infighting that characterizes that part of the world -- and the naïve American officials who try to navigate the ever-shifting alliances along the Af-Pak border.

Winning wars in Afghanistan is hard to do. Indeed, both the British and Soviets foundered in their war efforts in that part of the world. Some say their empires collapsed in the trying.

As for the reports that the war in Afghanistan is going badly, you can get the same information from many returning veterans. Most Afghans would tell you the same thing. I'm deeply skeptical that the Afghans will ever let a foreigner -- or even a nearby Afghan neighbor or relative -- assert central government control over theirs lives. They have never done so in their history and I can't see it changing now.

The only people for whom the release of these low-secret military reports is news is the American people -- those of us who are underwriting this effort with our hard-earned tax dollars and who are sending young people and loved ones to die in our name.

Transparency is always important in a democracy, but particularly so in a time of war. Among other things, it forces us to publicly ask embarrasing questions that we might otherwise avoid, such as "Is this war winnable?" and, if not, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

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