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The 92,000 reports on the war in Afghanistan made public by the whistleblower organisation WikiLeaks, and reported Monday by the Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel, offer no major revelations that are entirely new, as did the Pentagon Papers to which they are inevitably being compared.
But they increase the political pressure on a war policy that has already suffered a precipitous loss of credibility this year by highlighting contradictions between the official assumptions of the strategy and the realities shown in the documents – especially in regard to Pakistan’s role in the war.
Unlike the Pentagon Papers, which chronicle the policymaking process leading up to and during the Vietnam War, the WikiLeaks documents chronicle thousands of local incidents and situations encountered by U.S. and other NATO troops that illustrate chronic problems for the U.S.-NATO effort.
Among the themes that are documented, sometimes dramatically but often through bland military reports, are the seemingly casual killing of civilians away from combat situations, night raids by special forces that are often based on bad intelligence, the absence of legal constraints on the abuses of Afghan police, and the deeply rooted character of corruption among Afghan officials.
The most politically salient issue highlighted by the new documents, however, is Pakistan’s political and material support for the Taliban insurgency, despite its ostensible support for U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
The documents include many intelligence reports about Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, the director of the ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, in the late 1980s, continuing to work with the Taliban commanders loyal to Mullah Omar as well as the Jalaluddin Haaqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar insurgent networks.
Some of the reports obviously reflect the anti-Pakistan bias of the Afghan intelligence service when it was under former Northern Alliance intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh. Nevertheless, the overall impression they convey of Pakistani support for the Taliban is credible to the news media, because they confirm numerous press reports over the past few years.
The New York Times led its coverage of the documents with its report on the Pakistani-Taliban issue. The story said the documents reflect “deep suspicions among American officials that Pakistan’s military spy service has for years guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as Pakistan receives more than 1 billion dollars a year from Washington for its help combating the militants.”
The issue of Pakistani “double-dealing” on Afghanistan is one of the Barack Obama administration’s greatest political vulnerabilities, because it is bears on a point of particular political sensitivity among the political and national security elite who are worried about whether there is any hope for success for the war strategy, even with Gen. David Petraeus in command.
One Democratic opponent of the war policy was quick to take advantage of the leaked documents’ focus on Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. In a statement issued Monday, Sen. Russ Feingold, Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the documents “highlight a fundamental strategic problem, which is that elements of the Pakistani security services have been complicit in the insurgency”.
In combination with “competing agendas within the Afghan security forces”, Feingold argued, that problem precludes any “military solution in Afghanistan”.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai took advantage of the new story generated by the documents to release a statement pointing to Pakistani sanctuaries across the border as the primary problem faced by his government. “Our efforts against terrorism will have no effect as long as these sanctuaries and sources remain intact,” said Karzai.
Last February, then Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said what administration officials had privately conceded. Disrupting the “safe havens” enjoyed by the Taliban on the Pakistani side of the border, he said, “won’t be sufficient by itself to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan”, but it is a “necessary condition” for making “progress” in Afghanistan.
Implicitly admitting its political vulnerability on the issue, on Sunday, the White House issued a compilation of statements by senior administration officials over the last 18 months aimed at showing that they have been tough with Pakistan on Afghanistan.
But none of the statements quoted in the compilation admitted the reality that Pakistan’s policy of supporting the Taliban insurgency has long been firmly fixed and is not going to change.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed in April 2009 that “elements” of the ISI were “connected to those militant organisations”. But he suggested that Pakistani chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, with whom Mullen had developed a close personal relationship, was in the process of changing the intelligence agency.
Mullen essentially pleaded for time, saying that change “isn’t going to happen overnight” and that “it takes a fairly significant time to change an organisation.”
Admitting that Pakistan’s fundamental interests in Afghanistan conflict with U.S. war strategy would be a serious – and possibly, fatal – blow to the credibility of the Obama administration’s strategy of using force to “reverse the momentum” of the Taliban.
To the extent that this contradiction and others are highlighted in the coming weeks as the news media comb through the mountains of new documents, it could accelerate the process by which political support for the Afghanistan War among the foreign policy and political elite continues to diminish.
The loss of political support for the war among the political and national security elite has accelerated in recent months and is already far advanced. More prominent figures in the national security elite, both Republican and Democratic, have signaled a developing consensus in those circles that the war strategy cannot succeed, paralleling the process that occurred in Washington in 2006 in regard to the Iraq War.
Just this past week, Robert Blackwill, former deputy national security adviser for George W. Bush, and Richard Haass, former Bill Clinton administration official and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, joined the chorus of doubters and called for ceding southern Afghanistan to the Taliban and withdrawing to the north.
Haas penned an article in Newsweek under the title, “We’re Not Winning. It’s Not Worth It.”
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006.