Did Chelsea Manning end the Iraq War?

December 15, 2011 flag-lowering ceremony at U.S. Army base west of Baghdad marks end of America’s war in Iraq; photo by Ali al-Saadi/AFP via Getty Images.

According to one view of history, Chelsea Manning’s disclosures forced the pullout of American troops from Iraq in 2011. The smoking gun is said to be WikiLeaks’ publication in August of that year of a 5½-year-old State Department cable. The dispatch reproduced an email to the U.S. Mission in Geneva from Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. WikiLeaks alleged it proved American troops were “carrying out war crimes with impunity.”

Alston expressed concern over reports indicating that at least 10 persons were killed during a March 2006 raid in the town of Ishaqi, 60 miles north of Baghdad. At the time, the attack was extensively covered by media in Iraq and abroad. Unsatisfied after a U.S. investigation cleared its own forces of wrongdoing, the Iraqi government announced it would conduct an independent probe. The BBC posted video images online that “appear to contradict the U.S. account of the events.” In March 2007, UN Special Rapporteur Alston copied and pasted his 2006 email text into an addendum to an official United Nations report, published for all the world to see.

Nevertheless, WikiLeaks insisted that this outdated information, repackaged under its trusted brand nearly 4½ years after Alston’s UN report, “directly led to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and therefore helped end the Iraq War.” The cable, said WikiLeaks, so incensed the Iraqi government that they denied American requests to keep troops in country past December 31, 2011, by which time all U.S. forces were required to leave per the Status of Forces Agreement signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. As the deadline loomed, the Obama administration had sought permission for several thousand military trainers to stay past the end of the year. Parliament, however, refused to grant them immunity from Iraqi law as requested by the White House. In October 2011, President Obama announced that all remaining U.S. troops and trainers would leave by the end of the year as previously scheduled. The last U.S. troops exited Iraq two weeks ahead of time, on December 18, 2011 (one day after Chelsea Manning’s 24th birthday).

However, it defies logic to suppose that WikiLeaks’ August 30 release of the Alston cable triggered the withdrawal of American troops just 3½ months later. Such large-scale geopolitical developments do not happen overnight, and in this case the momentum for withdrawal was already irreversible.

As Time reported in October 2011, “Ending the U.S. troop presence in Iraq was an overwhelmingly popular demand among Iraqis, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appears to have been unwilling to take the political risk of extending it.”

Yochi J. Dreazen in the National Journal agreed. “The opposition from across Iraq’s political spectrum meant that Maliki would have needed to mount a Herculean effort to persuade the fractious parliament to sign off on any troop extension deals. His closest advisers conceded such a deal would have virtually no chance of passing.” In particular, Dreazen related, “Shiite leaders — including many from Maliki’s own Dawa Party — were even more strongly opposed, with followers of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatening renewed violence if any American troops stayed past the end of the year.”

Moreover, numerous atrocities involving U.S. forces were widely known long before WikiLeaks’ publication of the UN Special Rapporteur’s email alluding to the 2006 Ishaqi raid. Other, equally notorious incidents included:

2003–2004 — Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse, which became a worldwide scandal in April 2004.

May 2004 — Mukaradeeb massacre where American forces killed 42 civilians at a wedding party.

January 2005 — Tal Afar checkpoint where U.S. troops opened fire on a car carrying a family of seven, killing both parents and wounding their five children seated in the back.

November 2005 — Haditha massacre, where U.S. Marines killed 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women and children, and which became a global cause célèbre in mid-2006.

March 2006 — Mahmudiyah gang rape and murder of 14-year-old Iraqi girl by U.S. Army soldiers, who also murdered her family.

September 2007 — Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad, where Blackwater personnel under contract to the U.S. State Department killed 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded 20 others. This was reported worldwide at the time and resulted in multiple investigations, including one by the FBI that found 14 of the 17 Iraqis were killed without cause. (In 2014, a U.S. federal court convicted one Blackwater employee of murder and three others of manslaughter; in December 2020, President Trump pardoned all four.)

Even WikiLeaks’ greatest hit depicted a previously covered event, a July 2007 Baghdad airstrike that was reported contemporaneously by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters, and other international news outlets. The pilots’ banter was recounted verbatim in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel’s book The Good Soldiers, published seven months ahead of WikiLeaks releasing Collateral Murder, the graphic helicopter gunsight video that Chelsea Manning called “war porn.”

All these outrages were well known years before WikiLeaks anointed itself as liberator of the Iraqi people. By the time Chelsea Manning set foot in country, an entire catalog of highly publicized abuses by U.S. forces had been seared into Iraqis’ collective consciousness.

WikiLeaks and Manning were latecomers in ending the Iraq War. Their contribution was nil.

Copyright © 2021 by Alan Kurtz

Alan Kurtz is the author of Chelsea Manning’s War (2021), a self-published Amazon Kindle e-book.



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