Saturday, October 23, 2010

Aircraft Carriers, Nuclear Subs, and (Wiki)Leaks

The militaries of the United States and the United Kingdom had a rough week.

First, the UK's slashing of its defense budget by 8% (though less than the average of 19% for other departments) leaves serious doubts about its deployment capabilities. It also creates the embarrassing situation that, due to prior contracts, the British must buy two aircraft carriers, despite not being able to afford the jets for them for at least a decade.

Yesterday, compounding British embarrassment, the HMS Astute--perhaps the world's most advanced nuclear submarine, designed for stealth maneuvers--became mired in the mud off of Scotland. This occurred within view of the shore so civilians got to watch the numerous failed attempts to free the $2 billion submarine. After ten hours a tugboat finally got this high tech wonder free. Divers will be sent down to expect possible damage to the rudders. This isn't the only humiliating episode for Britain's submarines in recent memory, but the fact that this was merely a test drive of the new craft should raise concerns about Britain's nuclear seamanship. Fortunately, the hull was not breached nor were there any reports of a nuclear or environmental incident.

But, the 1,000 pound gorilla in the room is Wikileaks' release of 400,000 documents giving insight into the Iraq War. Last time, Gates said the leaks did nothing to harm US intel assets or the conduct of missions in Afghanistan. Similarly, it seems unlikely that these new releases will much affect the conduct of the Iraq War, especially as it winds down. That said, the leaks will raise important questions about the conduct of the war by the US and its Iraqi allies and may raise public outrage over the war both here and abroad.

Interestingly, though Wikileaks is certainly a antiwar outfit, some of the leaks serve to support official US assertions about the war in Iraq. For one, many of the leaked documents provide evidence of Iran's direct involvement in organizing and arming insurgents against coalition forces. Explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), the focal point of previous allegations against Iran's weapons support are mentioned, but so are surface-to-air missiles, rifles, and rocket launchers. Even a nerve agent with origins in Iran is reported to have been in the possession of insurgents.

Speaking of nerve gas, Wikileaks shows that the search for WMD in Iraq continued even after hopes were dashed soon after the war's start in 2003. And the results could be surprising. In addition to the aforementioned Iranian supplies, US troops continued to find small caches of chemical weapons around the country. Most of these were holdovers from Saddam's Gulf War stockpiles, but never the less mustard gas and blister agent were found, in various guises, across Iraq. Further, there is evidence that insurgents tried to get their hands on it. Though limited amounts of chemical weapons will not create a revisionist history of our initial involvement in Iraq (i.e. there were WMD!), it certainly seems there was a greater presence of illegal weapons than the public was initially said to believe.

That said, Wikileaks still released many documents to denigrate the conduct of the war. The greatest focus will probably fall upon the number of civilian deaths reported in the documents. Events that were unknown to the public--such as a stampede on a bridge claiming 950 lives--are scattered amongst the reports. The gist of the death tallies suggests that the Iraq Body Count's estimate of 100,000 civilian dead between 2004-2009 is more or less accurate. The Bush Administration went to great lengths denouncing the organization's figures as inflated, though it appears the military had estimates that were relatively close.

Finally, reports of abuse of detainees by Iraqi security forces will raise real questions about the professionalism of said forces and the ability of the US to leave the country in their hands. Reports suggest detainees had their eyes gouged, were beaten with metal cables, were electrocuted, and in myriad other ways mistreated. Some died in custody without formal explanation or investigation. In fact, even after the incidents at Abu Ghraib, many detainees would initially tell their Iraqi captors that they were terrorists in order to the transmitted to US custody where they would be treated more humanely.

Possibly aside from the allegations about Iraqi security forces treatment of detainees, none of the leaks that have so far been dealt with by major news outlets at this early point presage a major reorganization of American efforts in Iraq (nevermind that US forces are now down to 50,000). At worst it could play a role like the "Pentagon Papers" in stirring public outrage over how the US military engages in war. These documents do not give insight into how our military is engaged, nor betray valuable US assets, but instead represent a history of the Iraq conflict. Outrage may be a likely outcome, but a major shift in US policy is not. For academics and those seeking to score political points, these leaks come as a revelation. For the troops on the ground in Iraq they will likely not create a stir. Gates will likely be validated again in his assertion Wikileaks does not affect the war effort in any major way, aside from the possible embarrassment of US and allied forces.

Perhaps the people who ought to be most concerned about these leaks are Wikileaks founder Julian Assange himself--who news reports suggests is becoming more paranoid and self-alienated due to his work--and Pfc. Bradley Manning, the target of the government's investigation into the source of the first batch of leaks. Ironically those whose lives are most negatively affected by the leaking of these materials are the leakers themselves.

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