WikiLeaks' blow to the surge

By Marc A. Thiessen
Monday, August 9, 2010

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has made clear that his objective in releasing tens of thousands of classified documents was to "end the war in Afghanistan" and "oppose an unjust [war] plan before it reaches implementation." He may well achieve his goal. Assange's illegal disclosures are helping the Taliban to undermine Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy before it has a chance to work.

The documents Assange made public exposed the identities of at least 100 Afghans who were informing on the Taliban -- in some cases including the names of their villages, family members, the Taliban commanders on whom they were informing, and even GPS coordinates where they could be found. The Taliban quickly announced that it was combing the WikiLeaks Web site for information to use to punish these Afghans.

Then, just four days after the WikiLeaks documents were published death threats began arriving at the homes of Afghan tribal leaders. A few days later, one such leader was dragged from his home and executed. It is unknown whether his identity was exposed in the WikiLeaks documents, but according to Newsweek, his execution and the death threats "sparked a panic among many Afghans who have worked closely with coalition forces."

A Taliban intelligence officer warned that "the group's English-language media department is actively examining the WikiLeaks material and intends to draw up lists of collaborators in each province, to add to the hit lists of local insurgent commanders." He said that the message being sent to the Afghan people is: "America is not a good protector of spies."

This is a devastating blow to the surge in Afghanistan -- all the more so because point No. 1 on the counterinsurgency guidance Petraeus just issued to his troops reads: "Secure and serve the population. . . . Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and [the International Security Assistance Force] prevail."

In an insurgency, our enemies do not have to persuade the civilian population to join their side to prevail -- they simply need to intimidate the population enough to ensure that they do not join our side. This is why, as Petraeus explains in the separate counterinsurgency manual he authored in December 2006, coalition forces must provide "security from insurgent intimidation and coercion . . . informers must be confident that the government can protect them and their families against retribution. . . . Counterinsurgents should not expect people to willingly provide information if insurgents have the ability to violently intimidate sources."

By contrast, Petraeus explains that if security is established "the populace begins to assist [the coalition] more actively. Eventually, the people marginalize and stigmatize insurgents to the point that the insurgency's claim to legitimacy is destroyed." This is precisely what Petraeus did in Iraq. He secured the population, got it to join the fight and marginalized the insurgency.

The Taliban is determined to ensure that Petraeus does not replicate this success in Afghanistan. In June, the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Omar, issued new guidance to his troops, directing them to "Capture and kill any Afghan who is supporting and/or working for coalition forces or the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" and to "Capture and kill any Afghan women who are helping or providing information to coalition forces." WikiLeaks just made the Taliban's job a lot easier. Indeed, the Taliban could not have come up with a better plan to defeat Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy. How can Petraeus persuade Afghans to join the fight against the Taliban when WikiLeaks has demonstrated that America cannot protect their identities?

The damage Assange has wreaked extends far beyond Afghanistan. The United States also needs sources in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and East Africa to inform on al-Qaeda and help to prevent new attacks. America needs sources to tell us about the Iranian nuclear program, and other gathering dangers. Why would anyone risk helping America now, after it allowed the identities of more than 100 intelligence sources to be posted on the Internet?

It may be impossible to fully recover from this leak. But to mitigate the damage, the Obama administration must, at a minimum, show that the United States is taking action to ensure that such catastrophic disclosures are not repeated. Assange has threatened to release another 15,000 even more sensitive classified documents. If he is allowed to do so, the message will go forth from Kabul to Peshawar to Aden and beyond that America is powerless to protect those who help us.

Last week, the Pentagon warned that if WikiLeaks does not stand down, the government will "make them do the right thing." WikiLeaks immediately responded with this mocking tweet: "Obnoxious Pentagon spokesperson issues formal threat against WikiLeaks." Then, over the weekend, a WikiLeaks spokesman rejected the Pentagon's demand, declaring, "I can assure you that we will keep publishing documents -- that's what we do."

Now the ball is in the Obama administration's court.

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and writes a weekly column for The Post.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company