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The leak of tens of thousands of Afghanistan war-related documents tells us more than the sum total of many official communiqués about the war. On balance, more disclosure is a good thing, but the leaking of raw military intelligence is a special case that requires a careful, rather than a cavalier, approach.

There is not enough information about the war, and much official information is misleading. In Canada, the federal government's quarterly reports contain a few updates based on its goals in Kandahar, but little else that informs. The government has already shown itself to be an unreliable source on issues relating to Afghan detainees.

The situation is now too dangerous for the most trustworthy chroniclers - journalists, UN personnel - to go outside NATO-protected areas.

So reliable, independent information is lacking. The circumstances in this war make such information even more necessary.

The enemy uses suicide bombers, mingles easily with civilians and does not wear uniforms, making reliable information from the other side hard to come by. The intelligence service of NATO's main ally, Pakistan, has split loyalties. (This was suspected all along, but the documents suggest it even more strongly.) And the whole rationale in the West for the war is not an observable, immediate threat, but a premise: that an Afghanistan in thrall to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda will lead to new attacks against the West and could destabilize Pakistan.

If a war is to incur such a high cost, in lives and treasure, and is based on such a nuanced argument, then support for it cannot be taken for granted. Governments have a special duty to speak extensively about operations, including individual combat incidents. They need to disclose the facts - regarding the support of Pakistan or the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces - that underpin the strategy. Where such information is not forthcoming, leaks of raw military intelligence are a necessary, if extreme, service that fills in the picture.

But there are dangers in publishing such intelligence without fetters.

"National security" is a term that governments have sometimes used to deny even basic information about war operations. It is a legitimate consideration here. While the publications that received the WikiLeaks trove provided analysis, on its own website WikiLeaks left in information about operational details, including the exact location of attacks, which could help the Taliban in future encounters.

The fear of leaks, which has already affected internal Canadian government communications about Afghanistan, according to Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin, cannot be so severe as to affect military operations themselves. If concerns about leaks trickled down to the soldiers who write up the incident reports, effectiveness in combat theatres could be reduced.

Finally, WikiLeaks itself should not escape scrutiny. It is the sole provider of the leaked documents, yet its founder, Julian Assange, has an explicitly political mission, to showcase the war's failings. If journalists use its bounty, they must also ask questions, about what is being left out and about information that does not conform to the overall narrative WikiLeaks wants to convey.

The leaking of military intelligence is a serious matter, but the WikiLeaks documents are improving our understanding of a long and difficult war. If governments were more forthcoming about the true nature of the Afghanistan mission, with all its flaws and in all of its complexity, the public would have less need for them.

 

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