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What do the leaked Afghanistan documents tell us?

Sunday's release of a six-year archive of classified military documents detailing the war in Afghanistan has raised a number of questions about the conflict, not least of which is the most difficult one to answer: How is it going?

In various ways the 92,000 pages of military documents paint a grim picture of the United States military and its allies. To help provide some context to this rich trove of information we've invited Graeme Smith, a Globe and Mail reporter currently based in South Asia, to answer reader questions.

So far, the most surprising thing has been the 2007 flag meeting in Chaman between Canadian, Afghan, and Pakistani officials. I mentioned it at the bottom of today's story. The Canadians sat down for tea and lunch with their Pakistani hosts, enjoyed some light musical entertainment, and then the Pakistanis said, by the way, your foreign troops went into Pakistan yesterday and killed one of our soldiers. That report made me sit up straight. Must have been an interesting meeting. Graeme Smith

Mr. Smith served as The Globe and Mail's lead correspondent in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009, and is now writing a book about Kandahar. Last year he won an Emmy award for his multimedia series, " Talking to the Taliban."

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The discussion has now concluded, below is a transcript of the chat. BlackBerry and iPhone users can still click here to view a mobile-friendly version.

Your questions on the leaked Afghanistan war documents

11:46 Hello, I'm Shane Dingman, one of the online editors here at The Globe and Mail. Graeme will be joining us in a few minutes, but if you want to start posting your questions, please enter them into the box below.

11:55 Graeme Smith: Thanks for organizing this, Shane. What's interesting about these Wikileaks documents is they've started something akin to a collective gold rush. Everybody is panning for gold in that big stream of information. I'm curious to see if any of our readers have discovered nuggets - forgive me - that we've missed.

11:57 Shane Dingman: Glad to have you Graeme, I thought I'd start with a question one of our readers left.

Doug Nesbitt asked: Are the leaked documents limited to American military actions, or will we learn more about Canadian military actions? Even if it is just American military actions, might we learn about how often Canadian ground forces rely upon American air power?

11:59 Graeme Smith: Hi Doug. The documents appear to contain mostly U.S. military intelligence, but their system carries a lot of classified traffic about Canadian actions. So there are many, many reports generated by "TFK" for instance: that's Task Force Kandahar, the Canadian headquarters in Kandahar.

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11:59 [Comment From Adrienne Adrienne: ]/b> Hi, my question is regarding the "leaked friendly-fire account" reported on here:

12:01 Shane Dingman: Adrienne actually had a little more, she also wants to know: What I want to know is, do we have any hope of discovering the truth in a situation like that where the government simply claims it's not true? Other than denials, is the government under any obligation to investigate and explain the situation to Canadians, and what can be done by the average person to ensure that it is? I'm also curious if you think this will generate any anti-American sentiment, and ultimately if it is discovered there was a cover up, who could even be held accountable?

12:01 Graeme Smith: Hi Adrienne. I'll be honest, I don't see any huge controversy in the leaked version of the first days of Operation Medusa in Sept. 2006. The short bulletin in the Wikileaks documents doesn't do much to contradict the vast body of information and reporting by my colleagues about that day - notably Globe and Mail reporters Les Perreaux and Christie Blatchford, who have both looked into those events in detail.

12:03 Graeme Smith: Yeah, I think it's pretty clear that our four soldiers were killed by enemy fire on Sept. 3, 2006. There are a lot of mysteries about what happened in Kandahar during those years, but I don't think this is one of them.

12:04 Shane Dingman: Let's talk for a moment about your impressions as you looked through the 'gold rush' of documents? There has been a good deal of discussion about whether there were any 'smoking guns' in the trove of information, your story today talked a lot about the infighting among the allies...

Was this confirmation of something you knew, or did it raise new questions for you?

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12:08 Graeme Smith: For journalists, some of this information feels very cathartic. We knew in our guts that the official version was wrong, in some cases, but we didn't have evidence to support our hunches. For instance, every time a helicopter went down we were told that it was engine problems or a lucky shot with small arms. I mean, really? Every time? When we knew the Taliban had obtained the equivalent of old SA-7 heat-seeking missiles? So this allows us to go back and check the records of some events and see the discrepancy between internal and external military communications.

12:09 [Comment From safia: ]/b> have the documents brought us any closer to knowing whether prisoners were knowingly transferred into torture?

12:12 Graeme Smith: Hi Safia. I'll be honest, I haven't gotten all the way through the tens of thousands of documents. But I haven't seen anything so far that gives us that information. Remember, most of these records are short bulletins about incidents in the field. I'm skeptical about whether we'll get that sort of detail in the archive. But I was intrigued by some of the references: ANP handing over a prisoner to Canadian forces for unspecified "political" reasons, for example, or a mysterious transfer from a U.S. detention facility at Bagram into Canadian custody. In many ways, these records give us more questions than answers.

12:12 [Comment From lance:] The leaks seem to tell a comprehensive story of corrupt governance, civilian casualties, assassination squads, and shady war tactics. This message has not been the overarching theme of government statements and mainstream media reporting and editorializing. Why has the media, with all its embedded reporters, not given us a much clearer picture of the war, as depicted in the leaks? Journalists like yourself have done a great job; but media more broadly has let us down.

12:15 Graeme Smith: Hi Lance. Can you hear my big sigh, all the way from Islamabad? All I can tell you is that journalists have tried hard to give you the best information from Afghanistan. I've had friends killed or kidnapped in the process. You're right, the reporting hasn't always been great. We have lacked information from non-military sources, especially in the south and east of Afghanistan. Reporters without Borders called those areas a "black hole" of coverage. But the biggest obstacle is security. I don't want to die, so I don't travel into some areas to get a story. That's not a pleasant reality, but it's the main impediment to good journalism in this region.

12:16 [Comment From Glenn T: ] Whenever you see comments from the government and/or military regarding the leak they keep saying that this could put our solders in harms way. Is that true? What kind of information about the past could harm our solders in the present or future?

12:22 Graeme Smith: Hi Glenn. The military carefully guards what they call TTPs and BDAs. The first one, "Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures" is military jargon for stuff they do on a regular basis. So if the Taliban knows that the Canadian military typically does X in a situation such as Y, then that helps inform their own tactics. The other thing is "Battle Damage Assessments." Remember earlier in this chat, when I said the military was lying about why helicopters go down? Well that's probably how they justify their behaviour, feeling that if the Taliban knows exactly what methods are effective in bringing down an aircraft they're likely to try the same thing again. Personally I think it's a bit silly - the guy who shot the missile can probably see the spectacular fireball right in front of him, and doesn't need the Western media to inform him that it was a direct hit. But smarter people than me spend their entire lives thinking about this stuff, and that's why you see objections about these leaks.

12:24 Shane Dingman: One of the more cogent concerns I've seen expressed about the release of these documents was along the lines of: "This will cause a chill in the cooperation that Afghans give to Afghan and ISAF authorities." The worry being, Afghans might find their names published on the Internet as having been, according to the Taliban or other insurgents, collaborating. Your thoughts Graeme?

12:27 Graeme Smith: Yes, there's always the worry that these supposedly secret systems will get less useful if there's a risk of them being compromised. That applies to the Afghan informant who becomes more worries for his own safety, and to the U.S. soldier who gets concerned about the wrong eyes seeing what he types into his laptop, and to the senior officer who designs these systems and decides who gets to see the information. All along the chain, more paranoia means less useful intelligence.

12:27 [Comment From BJB: ] For anyone that's been paying attention, these documents don't appear to tell anything particularly new - do you think the analogy to the Pentagon Papers is valid?

12:27 [Comment From Michelle Michelle: ] what's the most shocking piece of evidence you read in these documents?

12:28 Shane Dingman: Those two reader comments posed some related questions about the relative weight of these documents, maybe you could mash their questions together into one answer...

12:32 Graeme Smith: Hi BJB. You're right, some media reports have dramatically overstated the importance of this stuff. I was shocked to see a front-page story in the New York Times claiming that we hadn't previously known about heat-seeking missiles in Taliban hands. I reported that - and okay, the folks in New York maybe weren't reading my stories - but many others noted it as well, including the well-known military analyst Anthony Cordesman. The archive is amazing enough. I don't think we need to overstate what it contains.... and Michelle: So far, the most surprising thing has been the 2007 flag meeting in Chaman between Canadian, Afghan, and Pakistani officials. I mentioned it at the bottom of today's story. The Canadians sat down for tea and lunch with their Pakistani hosts, enjoyed some light musical entertainment, and then the Pakistanis said, by the way, your foreign troops went into Pakistan yesterday and killed one of our soldiers. That report made me sit up straight. Must have been an interesting meeting.

12:34 [Comment From Guest: ]/b> We've known about ISI's support for the Taliban for decades - no surprise there - the big problem was getting CDN and US analysts to admit this was at the core of the war in Afghanistan - our strategy has been wrong from the start The Manley Report devotes 2 sentences to the border issue and that apparently from the best that DFAIT has to offer

12:38 Graeme Smith: Yes, I was also underwhelmed by the Manley report. Go back and read it. Doesn't the advice seem terribly quaint by now? In their defence, very few analysts understood what was happening as the violence escalated rapidly after 2005. ... And for the record, I think that Pakistan's role in the conflict has been very complicated. It's not as simple as saying "the ISI supports the Taliban." Pakistan has to play a very long-term game in this region, because after the NATO forces pull up stakes and leave Afghanistan, of course Pakistan will remain here, dealing with whatever comes next. That means preparing for some kind of political solution with the Taliban.

12:39 Shane Dingman: Galool asks: Can these documents form the basis for possible War Crimes investigations?

12:39 Shane Dingman: Certainly, the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, suggested that he thought there might be evidence of war crimes in these documents. For instance, there has already been some concern over 200-odd reports that involve Task Force 373, which according to AP was "an elite military special operations unit tasked with hunting down and killing enemy combatants in Afghanistan."

I often wonder in these discussions of war crimes why the Taliban's actions aren't mentioned as criminal, but perhaps that's a separate question.

12:44 Graeme Smith: I'm a bit limited on this, because I'm not an expert on international law. I did see a mention of Canadian troops - possibly - using white phosphorous mortar shells, which would - possibly - violate international norms on incendiary weapons, but it's often hard to determine from the short bulletins what's really happening. About the "capture/kill" operations: we already knew that was happening. I've reported in detail on those raids. Whether or not they violate international law, well, that's a conversation that's been going on for a while - especially around the use of drones to kill people in Pakistan's tribal areas. The UN's special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, Philip Alston, has been doing some of the leading work on that topic.

12:45 Shane Dingman: What about the reconstruction? There is some criticism out there that this document dump doesn't tell the good news of what the soldiers are doing in Afghanistan... but the Times went into detail on an orphanage that was built, and then seemingly either abandoned or milked by a corrupt official.

Did you see many examples of floundering reconstruction efforts? And again, did the documents support or undermine your thoughts on that area?

12:50 Graeme Smith: I'm glad you mentioned that, Shane. I loved that story about the orphanage. Not because it warms my heart to see an aid project go wrong, but because it confirms the suspicion that many journalists felt about these quick-impact projects. To observers in the field, it often seemed that the main idea of these initiatives was to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony and publish something nice in a newsletter. But of course you rarely saw follow-up stories about what happened afterward, about how the donated goods were looted by corrupt officials and the building got converted into something else. So it was nice to see the complete picture. ... Now, it's true that overall the aid work in Afghanistan has had many positive effects. Child mortality is down. Women's healthcare has improved. These are not small things, and many lives have been saved. But especially in the combat zones, the so-called reconstruction often seemed more like a circus.

12:50 Shane Dingman: I've got two more reader questions that are related, somewhat, in theme: The first about what the nature of the information contained therein, and whether your thoughts on the Afghan mission have changed as a result of them...

12:50 [Comment From Adrienne: ]/b> I'm curious if ultimately, Mr. Smith, you believe this kind of information SHOULD be released to the public at some point, or whether this is information is too interesting to ignore but really shouldn't be in our hands in the first place.

12:50 [Comment From Neil Coligan: ]i> Graeme, does any of this make you wonder why we are in Afghanistan?

12:54 Graeme Smith: Hi Adrienne, I'm pretty sure you will never see a policy that allows this kind of archive to get released without censorship. There's just too much detail that could be considered harmful to military interests. But I do think it would be a good idea to go through this stuff with a black pen, sparingly redact the few details that need to be censored, and release the rest. It's an excellent record of history.

12:55 Graeme Smith: ... And hey there Neil, yes, reading this archive reminds me that we should think carefully before planning another foreign intervention.

12:57 Shane Dingman: OK, partly because this story has morphed somewhat into a debate about journalism, here are some very journalist-centric questions:

12:57 [Comment From Saleem Khan Saleem Khan: ] Hi Graeme. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said that by releasing documents of this sort, he is doing what the media doesn't. That doesn't seem to ring quite true. 1. There's a question of how WikiLeaks obtains these documents: Are they volunteered by whistleblowers or does WikiLeaks take a more active role? 2. How do you normally get access to these kinds of documents? 3. What considerations and restrictions do you have in reporting on documents or revelations you obtain?

1:02 Graeme Smith: Hi Saleem, you know, Mr. Assange has a point. I'm not sure a responsible media organization would behave quite as aggressively as Wikileaks. If this kind of material fell into the hands of The Globe and Mail, would we have a look to see whether some of it might get Canadian soldiers killed? I'll bet it's something we would carefully consider inside the newsroom, whereas Wikileaks seems to have a more purist view of what material should be available in the public domain. ... About your other question, I don't know how Wikileaks gets its material, but it's probably from the same people of conscience who give stuff to newspapers. There are always people inside any organization who want the truth to come out.

1:05 Graeme Smith: Anyway, thanks for hosting me, Shane. It's a fascinating trove of information. Hopefully our readers will help us understand it better, as they sift through the thousands of documents.

1:06 Shane Dingman: Yes indeed, we always encourage the readers to tell us when they think we don't know what we're talking about ... thanks for joining us Graeme, I know it's late at night from your location, so goodnight and good luck.

And thanks to all the readers who followed along and of to those who participated.

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