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Taliban is part of will of Afghan people – WikiLeaks chief

Published time: August 14, 2010 01:14
Edited time: August 14, 2010 01:14

RT spoke in London to Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-chief of the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.org, responsible for the leakage of the documents on Afghan war, which was the biggest in US military history.

RT: You’ve had a wide range of responses to this publication detailing the everyday of war, ranging from praise to criticism. Is that what you were expecting?

UK, London : Australian founder of whistleblowing website, "WikiLeaks", Julian Assange speaks to media after giving a press conference in London on July 26, 2010. (AFP Photo / Leon Neal)

Julian Assange: We knew this was serious material. It covers a six-year period of war in 92,000 reports and almost every serious incident in the US military – who was involved, together with the times and locations, number of people killed, etc – so we knew it had great importance as a historical document and as a primary resource to be used for further investigations. We also know from those sorts of cases that we’ve dealt with previously – we always get “pushback”. Whenever we reveal abuse by some organizations, we always get that organization or its friends pushing back to try and steal the message away from the allegations that have been raised.

RT: One of the main criticisms that has been leveled at you is that you’ve published the villages, the names and in some cases the GPS-co-ordinates of people, Afghans, who’ve co-operated with the US military. You’ve even come under some criticism for human rights organizations for that. A US official has called it “a potential hit-list for the Taliban”. What’s your response to that?

JA: This appears to mostly be a media beat-up. We’re looking at the issue seriously to see whether that is true. We did hold back 15,000 reports for further review because they had that sort of classifications that suggested that maybe that they contain that sort of material. We approached the White House to ask them for assistance in reviewing material before we published. The White House did not accept that request. Now all of this is coming from The Times of London, and The Times did not tell us about any of these reports whatsoever. In fact, today I see that there is a title of an article: “Afghan men already dead”. Actually if you read the article you can see, at the bottom, is in fact that the men died two years ago. So at this stage we’re looking at this as mostly a media beat-up. Of course we’re very concerned to make sure that innocents are protected, so we are very happy to see any evidence which report is possibly revealing information about someone who is innocent. But once again, at this stage we have not confirmed those allegations at all. In fact when we actually looked at them we saw that those allegations are not correct.

RT: There has also been a suggestion that the release of this information will make it harder for allied forces to get Afghan citizens to co-operate with them.

JA: Well, what we reveal – and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past four years – is the truth about how organizations actually behave. Now if Afghans don’t like how those organizations actually behave, then of course it is their right to engage with them or not engage with them.

RT: It’s not so much that, it’s the potential danger that they may be in now that such a huge body of information is in public domain.

JA: Once again, this is an allegation by The London Times, a [Rupert] Murdoch publication that is in oppositional relationship to The Guardian, the paper that we collaborated with. They printed 14 pages on Monday in relation to this issue. The Times of London printed zero pages in relation to the issue on Monday. So they are now in an adversary relationship because they weren’t invited to the party.

RT: This has been a media sensation. You released the information to actually two selected media outlets, three newspapers. Since then you’ve given over a hundred media interviews including appearing on the Larry king show. Are you a publicity-seeker?

JA: That is just ridiculous. I mean, far from that. In fact, we try to have no publicity, we try to work under the same rules that The Economist does, where everyone has a shared byline.

What we have found is if the public demands that someone speak for an organization. Because of the security threats to the certain work we do, not many people are willing to step forward and speak. In the end, someone has to do it, and while I am already a public figure – so I am the person who does that.

RT: These documents date from the period between 2004 and 2009 – why do you publish them now and not earlier when they could have made more of a difference?

JA: We only received the material recently. We publish it as soon as possible.

RT: And what is the process that you did go throw between receiving it and publishing it?

JA: When we receive material like that it is very difficult to read because of the internal military language, internal jargon. The format is some of a computer format and it is impossible in fact for a person to read. So we had to understand a format, re-format it, make it in a presentable way, and then explore the material to pull out the stories and set up a coalition of media groups to do just that. That took quite a lot of work, not just for us, but for the three other organizations involved.

RT: There must be a huge amount of expertise involved in doing something like that. Where does your expertise and the expertise of your organizations come from?

JA: Well, we have 800 people involved as specialists in different areas, in different regional areas, computer specialists in different ways and former intelligence officers and so on. And we draw on that expertise. We are trying to understand any material like this.

RT: Washington says that these documents are outdated. Is there any truth to that claim?

JA: It depends on what you are talking about. If you are talking about how the war has progressed – of course it has been outdated, the war has been going on since 2001 – it’s been going for nine years. This material covers the last six years, with the exception of the last several months. That exception is important to some degree. It means that the material is not of tactical significance. It does not talk about troops that are just about to do something, which means it’s of essentially no threat to the US military forces, but it is deeply important for understanding the purpose of the war. The White House said, “Well, the material isn’t going up until December. In December we released the new Obama policy.” But Obama’s new policy on the war was, in fact, a continuation of the previous policy, except more troops. So why should the war change so dramatically just because relatively small changes have been put into place? The trick was to say “Suggest that there was no overlap between Obama’s new policy and this material.” In fact, Obama’s policy came on December 1st, and this material carried through up to the end of the year.

RT: You’ve said that the under-reporting of civilian casualties starts at the bottom of the common soldiery, that really no policy change at the top is going to. What do you think could make a difference?

JA: It’s an extremely hard situation. The answer is not for Western forces or ISF members to go away tomorrow, because that would lead to a power vacuum. The answer is probably a staged withdrawal, making agreements between the Taliban and the Afghan government. I predict there will be a continuation of the civil war, unless the allied forces establish some kind of equilibrium. Then we will see an increase towards peace. There are no easy options on the table.

RT: Who will gain from the release of all this information?

JA: The Afghan people. That is their country, and this is the history of their country. And they are to be able to effectively manage their destiny. They need this information to understand what is happening to their country. We can also say that people from the US, the UK, Australia, who are in the coalition and are actually paying for this war and their soldiers are being killed in this war. Those people also have their rights to understand what is actually happening. All those military companies are making extraordinary profits by providing services to troops, weapons, clothing and so on.

RT: But isn’t the Taliban and the Afghan insurgency likely to gain from this as well, because you have inadvertently maybe exposed the weaknesses of the allied forces?

JA: We have to be careful there. Remember, this is a civil war. Everyone says Taliban, but in fact, the Taliban are Afghans. This is a civil war that is going on. And Taliban are a part of the will of the Afghan people. They are also part, probably, of the Pakistani secret intelligence service, and maybe, of course, part of the will of Saudi Arabia, who is giving some money to this. But in terms of the bodies on the ground, people are actually doing their work. The Taliban is part of the will of the Afghan people. And the United States and the allied forces need to recognize and understand that it’s part of the Afghan people and if you are shooting Taliban, you are shooting the Afghan people.

That does not mean they do not have blood on their hands.

This material does not paint the behaviors of any military groups in a nice light – there is blood on all sides.