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The Globe and Mail

WikiLeaks hardly presenting a revelation on Afghan war

Afghanistan is the Groundhog Day of wars, and discussions: Every day is a brand-new day; no one ever remembers what happened the day before or the day before that; knowledge and wisdom do not accumulate; no one learns a bloody thing.

Consider what The Globe and Mail Monday called "Facts on the Ground, A Darker Portrait of Afghan War" and what The New York Times and The Guardian headlined "The War Logs."

Generally speaking, the newspaper consensus on the 92,000 classified documents unleashed upon the Internet by the WikiLeaks organization is as follows: The war is going more badly than previously acknowledged or thought and the big shock/horror hammer is purportedly that the Pakistani military is working in the shadows to support the Taliban.

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Are you freaking kidding me? This is news?

Canada has been in Kandahar since 2006, and it was in July of 2006 that Chris Alexander, the then just-retired Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan and at the time the United Nations deputy special representative to Afghanistan, was interviewed by The Globe.

The story ran July 4 on the front page in all editions under a headline which read: "Envoy points at Pakistan for deteriorating state of Afghanistan security."

Mr. Alexander was completely frank in pointing out that the insurgency was being run from across the border and that Pakistan's official position as a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism made calling the leadership on this reality a tricky proposition.

"But at the same time," he said, "an insurgency organized from sanctuaries within a neighbouring country needs to be addressed in just those terms. … And the Pakistani government has said it's a key ally of all of us in the war … so let's take them at their word, press them and co-operate with them to arrest the Taliban leadership who are running this insurgency."

By then - and this was four years ago, remember - Mr. Alexander told The Globe that formal Pakistani protests of innocence to the contrary, "the evidence [of the country's involvement in Afghanistan]is overwhelming, and in fact, we're not even discussing the evidence any more. We're really discussing what to do and how to do it."

For the record, he was speaking of Pakistan's involvement in "engineering this insurgency, in training bombers, launching suicide bombers into the Afghan environment for the first time in recorded history." As he said then, the biggest risk to Afghanistan's tentative recovery was "that the factors contributing to this insurgency won't be addressed, and that they might get worse.

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"And let's be very honest," he said, "They are not all, or even principally, within Afghanistan's control or on the territory of this country."

(Could he have been more blunt? Well, actually, I see in the transcript of our interview that he was. In a line I didn't use, he said: "I think the problems that can be solved inside Afghanistan are being solved and those that need to be solved outside are not yet coming right.")

Among the many little sidebars the Times ran was one it called a miniature of the Afghan war - from hope to heartbreak - found in the field reports from a lonely base called Combat Outpost Keating.

Keating was badly located (on low ground), undermanned and under constant threat; the soldiers' intial good cheer soon gave way to sometimes sour realism.

It sounded just like Gumbad, a squalid little base Canadians operated for about a year in northern Kandahar province, and to which there were only two ways in or out, which made the place a perfect target for roadside bombs. Canadian troops learned to their sorrow that winning over villagers was complicated (you know, as it is when the other side delivers ominous 'night letters,' burns down schools and feels perfectly free to bomb and attack civilians and schoolchildren), that the Taliban has many ears and eyes on the ground, that development was difficult.

At Keating, U.S. soldiers reported taking fire from a mosque; that's nice, gunmen using a place of faith as an armoury. That's not news either, but worth noting, and it does illustrate some of the challenges in Afghanistan. It reminded me of the Canadian soldiers who were once fired on by men wearing the uniform of the Afghan National Police, one of the security forces who are supposedly their allies and whom they are to mentor.

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There's no doubt. This is a dirty, costly, horrible war being waged in a country inured to death and corruption and hopelessness. The Yanks, Brits and Canadians and all the others who are there fighting it - imperfectly, with bad mistakes from time to time - are doing so at a moment in history when wars and the men and women who fight them are subject to unprecedented levels of scrutiny, and when classified documents are merrily released by a newish organization (WikiLeaks was formed in 2006) whose founder, Julian Assange, appears to believe he is the first fellow to discover that war is nasty and brutish.

The truth is, no one who paid the slightest attention to the war in Afghanistan could be surprised by the latest WikiLeak.

And as many of the Western countries - who just yesterday by Afghan standards, swore they were there for the long haul - prepare to take their leave, including Canada and the United States, their leaders would do well to remember what the prescient Mr. Alexander said, way back when the insurgency was just starting to rock again, about soldiers.

"Of course they want to be honoured," he said, "want the flag and the ceremony and to be treated well. But the only serious way of honouring the dead is by getting the job done."

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