Wikileaks Afghanistan: leaks must be treated with caution
Afghan proverbs probably provide as much guidance on how to survive in the country as do many of the intelligence reports we have all just been given a chance to read.
There is a proverbial story about the man who was told to chase the dog which had run off with his ear. He ran a mile before taking the trouble to feel both sides of his head and find that both ears were actually intact. Anyone with any responsibility for public affairs in Afghanistan – whether soldier, political officer or businessman – must recognise that they are operating in an environment of rampant information manipulation. The intelligence reports provide multiple examples of why you really do have to check both ears before deciding whether to run after the dog.
There is no shortage of examples of disastrous actions triggered by dodgy information. In July 2002, the UN assigned me from Kabul to Eastern Afghanistan. New in the area, I got myself introduced to Afghans who could guide me in my understanding of what was going on. I found one Haji Rohullah of Kunar province very helpful and I made a point of talking to him on the phone every evening. Until one day he did not pick up and I found that he had been arrested and taken to Bagram en route to Guantánamo. There has been a long rivalry between a handful of leading commanders in Kunar. One of them, Malik Zarin, treated me to a preposterous story about how Haji Rohullah (his rival) was supporting multiple unofficial military units with the intention of carrying off a Pakistan-backed coup in Jalalabad. Many Afghans and the international human rights community worked for years for the return of Haji Rohullah. But by the time he was flown back from Cuba his supporters were involved in an insurgency which had not even been under way at the time he was arrested. The arrest of a local leader, probably based upon fabricated information, contributed to the alienation of an important network and unnecessarily strengthened the insurgency. Strangely enough there is a mention of Malik Zarin of Kunar in the leaked intelligence reports. One report has him following ISI directions and proceeding from Kunar to Kabul to wreak havoc. This report too is fabricated.
One of the areas in Afghanistan which seems to have been subject to some of the most intense disinformation campaigns is Sarobi, just east of Kabul. I recall being genuinely puzzled initially as I sat in a United Nations office in Kabul in the early stages of the post-Taliban international intervention.
The newly reborn Ministry of Interior Intelligence would bring in blood-curdling stories of opposition commanders gathering weapons and preparing to fight against the new order. US forces intervened and picked up Izzatullah the former Hezb-i-Islami Division commander from the area and then came back to collect his father. Both were flown off to Cuba, despite having been co-operative with the early stages of the intervention. Over time it became clear that Sarobi had been a flash point in the factional conflict of the 1990s. Many people who had been involved in that conflict were rehired in the reconstituted security forces. They started informing on their old rivals. It was truly amazing how rapidly fabricators in or attached to the Afghan security services adopted the jargon of the newly invented War on Terror and started casting their rivals in stories calculated to prove that they were enemies of the new order and of the United States.
If you want to avoid doing harm and ultimately achieve success in Afghanistan you need to develop sources of information that cut out these fabricators. You also need to avoid chasing after targets that an interested party introduces you to as the enemy. This works on the strategic level as well as the tactical level. The Taliban featured so prominently in the demonology of the foreigners who intervened in Afghanistan not just because they had sheltered Al Qaida which attacked the United States. The Taliban also became the enemy because many Afghans portrayed them to the foreigners as the enemy. Bringing an end to the insurgency may well involve rehabilitating quite a few figures who were first demonised in the kinds of intelligence reports which we have all been reading over the past couple of days.
* Michael Semple is a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School and former deputy to the EU mission in Afghanistan.