Of all the responses to the recent WikiLeaks affair, one of the most interesting was the argument that the leaks actually are not a big deal.
The idea seems to be that the political damage from the leaks to the governments who have supported the war can be minimized by arguing that what has been leaked is simply not all that important. Probably the best proponent of this view was an op ed from a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in the New York Times. The argument is based on the proposition that the leaks do not tell us anything new of any importance, but rather paint a more detailed picture of what was already known to analysts.
For example, it is claimed that the leaks which show the Pakistan's spy agency -- the ISI -- is believed to be conspiring with the Taliban and other insurgents, are not a big deal because American intelligence officers already knew this, and have said so in anonymous leaks to the press.
This nicely misses the point. Now the public can read the evidence for it ourselves. It is one thing to read in the paper that an unnamed US Intelligence source has a suspicion that the ISI might be helping the Taliban. It is quite another to read details of an internal US document containing allegations that Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, who was actually the head the whole agency, had had personal meetings with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who 'commands' part of the insurgency in Afghanistan. Or that he had met with senior Afghan commanders in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, in January 2009, to plan an attack on allied forces to avenge the death of a commander who had spearheaded deadly al Qaeda attacks. Naturally, General Gul denies the allegations. But you do not need to be an analyst to see that a specific allegation brings the urgent issue of what the ISI is doing front and center in a way that a generalized admission of suspicion from an unnamed intelligence agent could ever do.
Another example is the question of civilian casualties. It has been argued that because NGOs like CIVIC -- the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict -- have already been counting civilian casualties, we learn nothing new from hearing accounts of the blunders which led to those civilian casualties. (One example is the incident in September 2009 when two allied 500-pound guided bombs killed 60 civilians. Faulty intelligence had described the area as civilian free).
Nowhere near as much detail as this was in the public domain until the leak. But even if it had been, because the information comes from an internal document and because of the publicity the leak has generated, it has focused attention on the issue in a way that a mere NGO's report never could. The question is not whether these revelations are in the public domain. The question is whether they form part of the public debate. The NGO's report did not achieve that in a meaningful way. The leak means they will.
But the main reason the leaks area important is because they give us an inkling of what the allied military establishments are not willing to tell us.
In 2007, an American helicopter was shot down resulting in the deaths of seven soldiers. Witnesses said that the incident bore the hallmarks of a surface-to-air missile -- the Taliban's possession of which the coalition had avoided revealing, with NATO's official spokesman implying that the attack was probably the result of small-arms fire.
This is but one isolated example, but it is a symptom of the main reason these leaks are important: in order to form an opinion on the war, we need to be able to trust the official information coming from the field. The leaks suggest that we cannot always do so.
This in turn erodes populations' trust in what their military establishments tell them. True, that makes no difference to the progress of the war on the ground in the plains or mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is a point about the direction of public sentiment in the US, the UK, and other allied countries. It is, in short, not the kind of thing that a security analyst like the author of the New York Times op-ed would concern themselves with. But it is of vital significance to the progress of the war, because that war depends on the continuation of political will to fight it, which in turn depends on politician's perception of their electoral incentives in continuing to support it.
Do not let anyone tell you that the leaks are not important because they do not tell us anything new. It is not just that they do. They bring the issue of the progress of the war front and center, where it belongs, and they give the public evidence on which it can make up its own mind.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.