WASHINGTON - The 92,000 reports on the war in Afghanistan made public by the
whistleblower organization WikiLeaks, and reported on Monday by selected
international publications, 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
Unlike the Pentagon Papers, which chronicle the policymaking
process leading up to and during the Vietnam War, the WikiLeaks documents
relate thousands of local incidents and situations encountered by United States
and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops that illustrate
severe problems for the US-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 US policy in Afghanistan.
The documents include many intelligence reports about Lieutenant General Hamid
Gul, the director of the Inter-Services Intelligence (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 and Sirajuddin
Haqqani 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 US$1 billion 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 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 General 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 on Monday, Senator 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 past 18 months aimed at showing that they had 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.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed in April
2009 that "elements" of the ISI were "connected to those militant
organizations". But he suggested that Pakistani chief of staff General Ashfaq
Parvez Kiani, 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
Admitting that Pakistan's fundamental interests in Afghanistan conflict with US
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 this support 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.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US 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.