The latest batch of confidential documents released by the Wikileaks anti-secrecy group do not contain startling information. But according to analysts, they contain many examples of abuses by Iraqi security forces, often in front of their American trainers, as well as reports of higher civilian casualties than previously stated. The documents also underscore the dilemmas U.S. forces faced in Iraq, and might be facing in Afghanistan.
A war in shapshots
The published classified documents are snapshots of a war. The nearly 400,000 pages, dubbed war logs by many analysts and journalists, document what are purported to be scores of incidents of mistreatment and abuse of prisoners at the hands of Iraqi security forces. According to the WikiLeaks documents, prisoners were whipped and beaten.
Some of these incidents are reported to have occurred outside the sight of American trainers, while others took place in front of U.S. soldiers. In some cases, American troops tried to intervene to halt the abuse. In others, they stood by.
Charles Dunne, former National Security Council director for Iraq, says the documents contain little that people in government did not know at the time. Many such instances of abuse were publicly documented in the State Department's annual Human Rights Report and investigations by private human rights groups. But Dunne adds that the documents highlight how difficult it was to end such abuse in the cauldron of violence that Iraq had become.
"Iraq is a violent political culture, always has been," says Dunne. "I mean, you talk about these people getting burned with acid. I remember seeing pictures in information that I had of Kuwaiti prisoners who had been subjected to precisely the same treatment by Saddam [Hussein]'s invasion force during the [Persian] Gulf War. That kind of thing is very, very, very hard to stamp out. And I just don't see us being in a position to do a lot more than we have so far," he says.
The United States had its own brush with a prisoner abuse scandal in 2004 about mistreatment of detainees by U.S. guards at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. Dunne says that, after that, there was an intense effort not only to prevent U.S. abuse, but also to teach the Iraqi police and army units being trained by U.S. forces to refrain from similar actions.
"After the Abu Ghraib scandals, in particular, we tried to police or own soldiers better, and then in training the Iraqis on our rule of law and human rights components that are part of this training," says Dunne. "And, I think that what the documents reveal is the extent to which American soldiers were disturbed by this and did try to call the Iraqis out on it in some cases. In other cases," he adds, "they simply didn't have the manpower really to launch all these investigations on their own."
U.S. General George Casey, who commanded coalition forces in Iraq and who is now the Army's chief of staff, says American troops did not ignore cases of abuse.
"That's just not the case. Our policy all along was when American soldiers encountered prisoner abuse, it was to stop it and then report it immediately up the U.S. chain of command and up the Iraqi chain of command. And we were very strong with that," says Casey.
And reports were made, as the Wikileaks documents show. But some of the documents quote from an order saying that if American forces were not involved there was to be no further investigation unless directed to do otherwise by an unspecified higher authority.
Uncomfortable choices for U.S. soldiers
Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College says American troops are caught in a dilemma. He says, whether they intervene or not, they will be perceived as taking sides.
"You're sort of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't', in the sense that if you have a kind of predominantly Shi'ite prison security force and they're going to beat the heck out of some Sunni prisoner, if you intervene to prevent it, looks like you're choosing sides with the Sunnis," Goodson points out. "If you don't intervene to prevent it, well, it looks like you've chosen the Shi'ites. And you're sort of stuck either way."
As was the case in Iraq, U.S. forces are now in a host country beset with ethnic, sectarian and tribal differences - Afghanistan. Analysts say the problems highlighted in Iraq by the WikiLeaks documents could appear with greater frequency in Afghanistan, as U.S. and NATO troops train Afghan police and military units to gradually assume responsibility for their country's security.