IT could easily be argued that the fog of war has, if anything, become more dense with this week’s WikiLeaks revelations about Afghanistan. The plethora of leaked documents encompasses varying levels of secrecy and credibility, and the broad range of the information enables those at the receiving end to pick and choose elements of particular significance.
Anyone seeking confirmation that “hearts and minds” is more or less a lost cause for the United States and its Nato allies, not least because the level of civilian casualties is considerably higher than that acknowledged in official statements, can find it here. There’s also plenty of material that can serve to vindicate the suspicion that the primary problem with the conflict is that it is being stoked by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
There is a crucial dichotomy here. Much of the information about civilian deaths and injuries comes from internal military documents. Revelations about the Taliban’s access to shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles – which, when supplied to the Mujahideen by the CIA in the shape of Stingers, proved crucial to undermining the Soviet war effort back in the 1980s – fall in the same category.
On the other hand, many of the reports about ISI involvement come from Afghan intelligence sources, and their veracity is questioned by both The Guardian and The New York Times – the two newspapers that, along with Germany’s Der Spiegel, collaborated with WikiLeaks in bringing the documents to public attention.
It does not follow, of course, that the imputations against the ISI are necessarily false. It is certainly possible – even likely – that the more lurid tales about poisoned alcohol supplies and plans to assassinate Hamid Karzai are, if not figments of someone’s imagination, highly exaggerated. But at the same time there are elements in this context that pass the test of probability and plausibility. Among these is the case of Stephen Kappes, the CIA’s deputy head, confronting the ISI in July 2008 with evidence of its role in a deadly suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul.
It also isn’t difficult to believe that the ISI’s ties with the Haqqani network have more broadly been invoked to mount actions against Indian interests in Afghanistan. There may not be much doubt that India’s four consulates and $1.3 billion investment in development projects in that country are intended in large part to counter Pakistani influence. At the same time, however, the available evidence facilitates the conclusion that whereas India’s engagement with Afghanistan has largely been constructive, Pakistan’s involvement has mainly been destructive – particularly if the WikiLeaks allegations about an ISI role in training the purveyors of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are even partially true.
It would have made a great deal of sense for India and Pakistan to cooperate in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan, but as the toxic fallout from the recent foreign minister-level talks between the neighbours illustrates, that is hardly within the realm of possibility, at least in the short term. It is also hardly surprising that India and Afghanistan’s other neighbours are suspicious of Islamabad’s suddenly enhanced role in Kabul, with Karzai apparently accepting Pakistan’s army and ISI chiefs as intermediaries in the drive towards reconciliation with sections of the Taliban, particularly the Haqqani network.
It has been suggested that Karzai has changed his tactics after losing all faith in the capabilities of the US-led coalition that ensconced him in power. At the same time, he vowed in front of this month’s international conference in Kabul that Afghan forces would be ready to assume responsibility for security by 2014. This goal isn’t ostensibly incompatible with some sort of negotiated settlement with sections of the Taliban, and perhaps having a bet each way is Karzai’s best option.
A similar ambiguity on Washington’s part, on the other hand, is somewhat more alarming. It has overtly lauded Islamabad’s enhanced engagement with Kabul and admitted that Pakistan did not keep the US out of the loop in this context. At the same time, American sources have cast doubt on Pakistan’s intentions and motivations. The confusion was enhanced this week when the White House reacted to the WikiLeaks exposé by describing as “unacceptable” and “intolerable” Pakistan’s aid to the Taliban, including the provision of sanctuaries on Pakistani soil, while impressing upon its military and intelligence agencies the need to “continue their strategic shift against violent extremist groups”.
What makes this intriguing is the implication that some of the WikiLeaks information was new even to the White House. That’s unlikely, of course. And the message to Pakistan was supplemented by a decidedly more strident diatribe against the leaks, on the basis that they could compromise military operations – even though there is no reason to doubt that WikiLeaks and the three publications involved took care not to publicize any material that could endanger lives.
There is little cause for surprise, of course, in the criticism of WikiLeaks, whose action has been compared to Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking nearly four decades ago of the Pentagon Papers, which played a crucial role in turning American public opinion against the war in Vietnam. Ellsberg is the subject of a recent documentary titled The Most Dangerous Man in America, a titled bestowed on him by Henry Kissinger. Today’s American military and intelligence establishment presumably sees WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – who has appropriately been hailed by Ellsberg as a hero – in a similar light. Assange’s motives are entirely laudable, but it’s worth noting that whereas the Pentagon Papers consisted of US Department of Defence documents, much of the WikiLeaks material is relatively low-level data.
Meanwhile, The Guardian on Monday quoted an ISI official as commenting, “It’s very strange that such a large cache of information can be leaked to the media so conveniently. Is is something deliberate? What is its purpose? We’ll be looking into that.”
He appears to have been clueless about the background to the leaks, which brings to mind the old saying that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms. All the same, the ISI would be well-advised to share the results of “looking into that” with the White House.
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