This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
On Sunday, The New York Times and two other newspapers published
summaries and excerpts of tens of thousands of documents leaked to a
website known as WikiLeaks. The documents comprise a vast array of
material concerning the war
in Afghanistan. They range from tactical reports from small unit
operations to broader strategic analyses of politico-military relations
between the United States and Pakistan. It appears to be an
Tactical intelligence on firefights is intermingled with reports on
confrontations between senior U.S. and Pakistani officials in which
lists of Pakistani operatives in Afghanistan are handed over to the
Pakistanis. Reports on the use of surface-to-air missiles by militants
in Afghanistan are intermingled with reports on the activities of former
Pakistani intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, who reportedly
continues to liaise with the Afghan Taliban in an informal capacity.
At first glance, it is difficult to imagine a single database in
which such a diverse range of intelligence was stored, or the existence
of a single individual cleared to see such diverse intelligence stored
across multiple databases and able to collect, collate and transmit the
intelligence without detection. Intriguingly, all of what has been
released so far has been not-so-sensitive material rated secret or
below. The Times reports that Gul’s name appears all over the documents,
yet very few documents have been released in the current batch, and it
is very hard to imagine intelligence on Gul and his organization, the Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI) directorate, being classified as only secret.
So, this was either low-grade material hyped by the media, or there is
material reviewed by the selected newspapers but not yet made public.
Still, what was released and what the Times discussed is consistent with
what most thought was happening in Afghanistan.
The obvious comparison is to the Pentagon Papers, commissioned by the
Defense Department to gather lessons from the Vietnam War and leaked by
Daniel Ellsberg to the Times during the Nixon administration. Many
people worked on the Pentagon Papers, each of whom was focused on part
of it and few of whom would have had access to all of it.
Ellsberg did not give the Times the supporting documentation; he gave
it the finished product. By contrast, in the WikiLeaks case, someone
managed to access a lot of information that would seem to have been
contained in many different places. If this was an unauthorized leak,
then it had to have involved a massive failure in security. Certainly,
the culprit should be known by now and his arrest should have been
announced. And certainly, the gathering of such diverse material in one
place accessible to one or even a few people who could move it without
detection is odd.
Like the Pentagon Papers, the WikiLeaks (as I will call them)
elicited a great deal of feigned surprise, not real surprise. Apart from
the charge that the Johnson administration contrived the Gulf of Tonkin
incident, much of what the Pentagon Papers contained was generally
known. Most striking about the Pentagon Papers was not how much
surprising material they contained, but how little. Certainly, they
contradicted the official line on the war, but there were few, including
supporters of the war, who were buying the official line anyway.
In the case of the WikiLeaks, what is revealed also is not far from
what most people believed, although they provide enormous detail. Nor is
it that far from what government and military officials are saying
about the war. No one is saying the war is going well, though some say
that given time it might go better.
The view of the Taliban as a capable fighting force is, of course,
widespread. If they weren’t a capable fighting force, then the United
States would not be having so much trouble defeating them. The WikiLeaks
seem to contain two strategically significant claims, however. The
first is that the
Taliban is a more sophisticated fighting force than has been
generally believed. An example is the claim that Taliban fighters have
used man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) against U.S. aircraft.
This claim matters in a number of ways. First, it indicates that the
Taliban are using technologies similar to those used against the
Soviets. Second, it raises the question of where the Taliban are getting
them — they certainly don’t manufacture MANPADS themselves.
If they have obtained advanced technologies, this would have
significance on the battlefield. For example, if reasonably modern
MANPADS were to be deployed in numbers, the use of American airpower
would either need to be further constrained or higher attrition rates
accepted. Thus far, only first- and second-generation MANPADS without
Infrared Counter-Countermeasures (which are more dangerous) appear to
have been encountered, and not with decisive or prohibitive
effectiveness. But in any event, this doesn’t change the fundamental
character of the war.
Supply Lines and Sanctuaries
What it does raise is the question of supply lines and sanctuaries.
The most important charge contained in the leaks is about Pakistan. The
WikiLeaks contain documents that charge that the Pakistanis are
providing both supplies and sanctuary to Taliban fighters while
objecting to American forces entering Pakistan to clean out the
sanctuaries and are unwilling or unable to carry out that operation by
themselves (as they have continued to do in North Waziristan).
Just as important, the documents charge that the ISI has continued to
maintain liaison and support for the Taliban in spite of claims by the
Pakistani government that pro-Taliban officers had been cleaned out of
the ISI years ago. The document charges that Gul, the director-general
of the ISI from 1987 to 1989, still operates in Pakistan, informally
serving the ISI and helping give the ISI plausible deniability.
Though startling, the charge that Islamabad is protecting and
sustaining forces fighting and killing Americans is not a new one. When
the United States halted operations in Afghanistan after the defeat of
the Soviets in 1989, U.S. policy was to turn over operations in
Afghanistan to Pakistan. U.S. strategy was to use
Islamist militants to fight the Soviets and to use Pakistani
liaisons through the ISI to supply and coordinate with them. When the
Soviets and Americans left Afghanistan, the ISI struggled to install a
government composed of its allies until the Taliban took over Kabul in
1996. The ISI’s relationship with the Taliban — which in many ways are
the heirs to the anti-Soviet mujahideen — is widely known. In my book,
“America’s Secret War,” I discussed both this issue and the role of Gul.
These documents claim that this relationship remains intact. Apart from
Pakistani denials, U.S. officials and military officers frequently made
this charge off the record, and on the record occasionally. The
leaks on this score are interesting, but they will shock only those who
didn’t pay attention or who want to be shocked.
Let’s step back and consider the conflict dispassionately. The United
States forced the Taliban from power. It never defeated the Taliban nor
did it make a serious effort to do so, as that would require massive
resources the United States doesn’t have. Afghanistan is a secondary
issue for the United States, especially since al Qaeda has established
bases in a number of other countries, particularly Pakistan, making the
occupation of Afghanistan irrelevant to fighting al Qaeda.
For Pakistan, however, Afghanistan is an area of fundamental
strategic interest. The region’s main ethnic group, the Pashtun, stretch
across the Afghan-Pakistani border. Moreover, were a hostile force
present in Afghanistan, as one was during the Soviet occupation,
Pakistan would face threats in the west as well as the challenge posed
by India in the east. For Pakistan, an Afghanistan under Pakistani
influence or at least a benign Afghanistan is a matter of overriding
It is therefore irrational to expect the Pakistanis to halt
collaboration with the force that they expect to be a major part of the
government of Afghanistan when the United States leaves. The Pakistanis
never expected the United States to maintain a presence in Afghanistan
permanently. They understood that Afghanistan was a means toward an end,
and not an end in itself. They understood this under George W. Bush.
They understand it even
more clearly under Barack Obama, who made
withdrawal a policy goal.
Given that they don’t expect the Taliban to be defeated, and given
that they are not interested in chaos in Afghanistan, it follows that
they will maintain close relations with and support for the Taliban.
Given that the United States is powerful and is Pakistan’s
only lever against India, the Pakistanis will not make this their
public policy, however. The United States has thus created a situation
in which the only rational policy for Pakistan is two-tiered, consisting
of overt opposition to the Taliban and covert support for the Taliban.
This is duplicitous only if you close your eyes to the Pakistani
reality, which the Americans never did. There was ample evidence, as the
WikiLeaks show, of covert ISI ties to the Taliban. The Americans knew
they couldn’t break those ties. They settled for what
support Pakistan could give them while constantly pressing them
harder and harder until genuine fears in Washington emerged that
Pakistan could destabilize altogether. Since a stable Pakistan is more
important to the United States than a victory in Afghanistan — which it
wasn’t going to get anyway — the United States released pressure and
increased aid. If Pakistan collapsed, then India would be the sole
regional power, not something the United States wants.
The WikiLeaks seem to show that like sausage-making, one should never
look too closely at how wars are fought, particularly coalition
warfare. Even the strongest alliances, such as that between the United
States and the United Kingdom in World War II, are fraught with deceit
and dissension. London was fighting to save its empire, an end
Washington was hostile to; much intrigue ensued. The U.S.-Pakistani
alliance is not nearly as trusting. The United States is fighting to
deny al Qaeda a base in Afghanistan while Pakistan is fighting to secure
its western frontier and its internal stability. These are very
different ends that have very different levels of urgency.
The WikiLeaks portray a war in which the United States has a vastly
insufficient force on the ground that is fighting a capable and
dedicated enemy who isn’t going anywhere. The Taliban know that they win
just by not being defeated, and they know that they
won’t be defeated. The Americans are leaving, meaning the Taliban
need only wait and prepare.
The Pakistanis also know that the Americans are leaving and that the
Taliban or a coalition including the Taliban will be in charge of
Afghanistan when the Americans leave. They will make certain that they
maintain good relations with the Taliban. They will deny that they are
doing this because they want no impediments to a good relationship with
the United States before or after it leaves Afghanistan. They need a
patron to secure their interests against India. Since the United States
wants neither an India outside a balance of power nor China
taking the role of Pakistan’s patron, it follows that the risk the
United States will bear grudges is small. And given that, the Pakistanis
can live with Washington knowing that one Pakistani hand is helping the
Americans while another helps the Taliban. Power, interest and reality
define the relations between nations, and different factions inside
nations frequently have different agendas and work against each other.
The WikiLeaks, from what we have seen so far, detail power, interest
and reality as we have known it. They do not reveal a new reality. Much
will be made about the shocking truth that has been shown, which, as
mentioned above, shocks only those who wish to be shocked. The Afghan
war is about an insufficient American and allied force fighting a
capable enemy on its home ground and a Pakistan positioning itself for
the inevitable outcome. The WikiLeaks contain all the details.
We are left with the mystery of who compiled all of these documents
and who had access to them with enough time and facilities to transmit
them to the outside world in a blatant and sustained breach of protocol.
The image we have is of an unidentified individual or small group
working to get a “shocking truth” out to the public, only the truth is
not shocking — it is what was known all along in excruciating detail.
Who would want to detail a truth that is already known, with access to
all this documentation and the ability to transmit it unimpeded? Whoever
it proves to have been has just made the most powerful case yet for
withdrawal from Afghanistan sooner rather than later.