WikiLeaks’ release of 92,000 classified documents on the war in Afghanistan has confirmed what most attentive observers have known for many years — namely, that U.S. and allied actions caused many civilian casualties and that rogue Pakistani agents’ have been aiding the Taliban. While familiar to policymakers and journalists, the information has come as something of a revelation to an American public that’s grown skeptical and impatient with the war, and the dismissive response from the war’s supporters is just that much more infuriating for people who find the documents shocking or discouraging. Supporters of the mission (including myself) have evidently done a poor job informing and winning over the public, so it becomes all the more important that we now put the WikiLeaks documents in their proper context and make it clear why the leak shouldn’t be allowed to derail current policies.
The deteriorating conditions for U.S. and allied forces between 2004 and late 2009 reflected in the files were the product of a policy of deliberate neglect that the current administration has been attempting to remedy. Gen. McChrystal stated last year that the U.S. was in danger of “mission failure” if significant changes were not made. The civilian deaths and cover-ups described in the documents were precisely the sort of thing he wanted to make as rare as possible, as they were alienating the population and facilitating the resurgence of Taliban militias. With his stricter rules of engagement now in effect, the initial evidence is that fewer civilians are dying.
There seems to be nothing in these documents that indicates it would be better to abandon the new rules of engagement or reject a population-centric security approach in favor of a scaled-back U.S. presence augmented by air strikes and Special Forces raids. That is the likely, default alternative that would be promoted within the administration if the leaks have their intended anti-war effect and undermine current administration policy. Perversely, leaking this information in the name of exposing U.S. “war crimes” could take us back to the failed tactics catalogued in the leaked documents.
The charge of Pakistani “duplicity” is more serious, and even more important to address. Support for Afghan Taliban militias from dissenting elements within the Pakistani government has been a long-standing problem rooted in the fractured nature of the Pakistani state and Pakistan’s strategic interest in retaining influence in Afghanistan. Allies of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, have thwarted attempts by the civilian government to rein it in. Former members such as Lt. Gen Hamid Gul operate informally on their own to advance the agenda of rogue factions.
What the complaints miss is how much more cooperative Pakistan’s leadership has become in the last two years. The Pakistani army had been extremely reluctant to launch offensives against Pakistani Taliban groups, as its officers saw little reason to risk their forces in what they regarded as essentially an American war. If Pakistan were only addressing internal concerns, it could have resisted taking direct action. Instead, the government has undertaken offensives in Waziristan so extensive they have uprooted hundreds of thousands of people.
U.S. military and economic aid should always remain conditional on the extent of Pakistani cooperation, but it would be most unwise to penalize the country for the activities of rogue operatives. The war in Afghanistan will be over in a matter of years, but Pakistan could remain a valuable ally for much longer. Under the circumstances, accusing them of “duplicity,” as many commentators have done since the documents were leaked, is little more than a predictable exercise in scapegoating an ally that has been doing what we have asked of it.
WikiLeaks released this information in the hope of undermining political support for the war by revealing details that are outdated and presenting a misleading portrait of a major regional ally. Nonetheless, an American public preoccupied with their own economic woes and weary of prolonged war may jump at any reason to reject current policy. Remarkably, the war in Afghanistan was much less controversial in the U.S. when it was all of the things documented in the leak: a neglected conflict with insufficient resources and permissive rules of engagement. It would be a tragedy if, by emphasizing the flaws in the war effort that the administration already recognized and moved to correct, antiwar activists have jeopardized the best chance the U.S. has of expeditiously concluding the war in Afghanistan.