WikiLeaks Delineate Painful Afghan Reality

The 92,000 documents released by a whistle-blower on the conduct of the Afghan War hardly detail a new reality and shock only those who wish to be shocked, according to an analysis of the documents by George Friedman, the executive director of the highly respected US-based country risk analysis group Stratfor.

In a 2,000-word analysis of the documents, Friedman writes that "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 full Stratfor report, dated July 27, can be found here.

WikiLeaks, a Web site set up by human rights activists and others, created a huge stir with the release of the documents and the advance notice given to the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Speigel. The publication has been compared to the release of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. As the documents have pointed out abundantly, the Pakistanis, particularly the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Bureau, or ISI, have continued to support the Taliban despite claims by Islamabad that pro-Taliban officers were cleaned out of the ISI years ago.

But as Friedman points out, "It is irrational to expect the Pakistanis to halt collaboration with a (Taliban) 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 has made withdrawal a policy goal."

Though startling, the charge contained in the WikiLeaks documents that Islamabad is protecting and sustaining forces fighting and killing Americans is hardly new. When the United States halted operations in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets in 1989, US policy was to turn over operations in Afghanistan to Pakistan. The strategy was to use Islamic 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."

US officials and military officers have continued to make frequent charges that the ISI continues to back the Taliban. "The leaks on this score are interesting," Friedman writes, "but they will shock only those who didn't pay attention or who want to be shocked."

But given that they don't expect the Taliban to be defeated and they want to avoid chaos in Afghanistan, Friedman writes, "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.

While the US forced the Taliban from power in Kabul, it never defeated them, "nor did it make a serious effort to do so, as that would require massive resources the United States doesn't have," Friedman writes. "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, he continues, "Afghanistan is an area of fundamental strategic interest," an unstable country that, if Taliban forces are defeated, removes a buffer on Pakistan's flank – especially if Indian influence rises in Afghanistan. The region's main ethnic group, the Pashtun, stretch across the Afghan-Pakistani border. 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 strategic importance."

What is interesting about Friedman's report, however, is that the Americans have known all along what the Pakistanis have been up to. Pakistan's double act, he writes, "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 ties (on the part of the ISI) to the Taliban."

The Americans, he continues, "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."

A separate blog by Ahmed Rashid, the author of two books on the Taliban, on the Web site of the New York Review of Books on July 14 makes it appears indeed that Pakistan is in increasingly critical shape. The report can be found here. "It has become clear that the Pakistani Taliban have turned their guns from killing soldiers and police to mowing down minority sects and moderate Muslims" Rashide writes. "They are making a desperate bid to spark multiple sectarian wars between Muslims and non-Muslims, Shias and Sunnis, and amongst the Sunni sects, with the aim of overthrowing the state and establishing an Islamic emirate. Inter-religious wars, as medieval Europe knew well, know no boundaries, limits, or humanity."

Since a stable Pakistan is more important to the United States than a victory in Afghanistan, Friedman writes, "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 portray a war in which the United States is undermanned in the face of a 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 Taliban need only wait and prepare," Friedman writes.

"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."