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07.25.10

What the WikiLeaks Documents Really Reveal

The extensive release of thousands of secret files shows basic and unsustainable contradictions in U.S. policy, says Leslie H. Gelb—and underscores why the administration needs to reconsider its Af-Pak policy.

The extensive release of thousands of secret files shows basic and unsustainable contradictions in U.S. policy, says Leslie H. Gelb—and underscores why the administration needs to reconsider its Af-Pak policy. Plus, Tunku Varadarajan on Pakistan’s double-dealing.

What do the secret documents released by WikiLeaks tell us about U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan? It has to be said right off that they don’t tell us anything important we didn’t already know. There have been “informed” stories for years detailing how Pakistani military intelligence has been providing arms, money, and intelligence to the Afghan Taliban, who in turn have been killing American soldiers.

So, why are these leaked military and intelligence documents now threatening to shake the very foundations of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan? Because it’s now much more difficult to deny or dodge the truths that we’ve all been well aware of.

No amount of rhetorical tap dancing will allow the White House to escape the fundamental contradictions that underlie U.S. policy toward Af-Pak.

Government officials can always deflect news stories simply by crossing their fingers and waiting for the story to sink in a haze of oil spills and Lindsay Lohan extravaganzas. Now, however, “proof” is there in the black-and-white of secret U.S. documents, compliments of anti-war WikiLeaks. Even if one does not believe that the information contained in every one of these reports is accurate (some do sound rather bizarre), and even if little in the reports can be corroborated independently, the very volume of the “secret” material is overwhelming and plausible—and yes, seductively “secret.”

This leaves the Obama administration with three tales it can tell, most of which it is already shoveling.

First, officials can say that the documents represented leaked material that reveal “only one side of the story.” It’s the story in some cases of rather hysterical soldiers with limited experience and access to wider secrets. We, the government, have other documents that tell another story—one that gives a mixed picture of the behavior of our complicated and loyal Pakistani friends. (I’d hate to be the official assigned to deliver this pile of manure.)

Second, the administration could say that yes, some rogue Pakistani intelligence officers have been carrying out operations in support of the Taliban, that President Obama and his top aides have already remonstrated with the Pakistani government about this, and the Pakistanis are now trying to do better. (That tends to contradict the first story that the leaks are misleading.)

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Or third, officials could button their jackets, clear their throats, and say the war is the main thing and these difficult and complicated circumstances have to be put in the larger perspective. What counts is winning this war. Victory in Af-Pak, as it is fondly known, is a U.S. vital national interest; the officials could and probably will say.

But no amount of rhetorical tap dancing will allow the White House to escape the fundamental contradictions that underlie U.S. policy toward Af-Pak. In the first contradiction, the administration claims it’s fighting in Afghanistan to prevent al Qaeda from returning, and once again using Afghan soil to attack America. But now that al Qaeda can attack the United States, its friends and allies from Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan or London or New Jersey, it’s hard to claim any uniqueness for Afghanistan. So, why does the United States have to fight the war there with 100,000 troops?

In the second contradiction, the administration says that, deep down, the reason we’re fighting in Afghanistan is to help prevent an extremist takeover of Pakistan, an unstable Muslim country with nuclear weapons. And administration officials point to the fact that Pakistani officials tell us publicly and privately that the U.S. must stay the course in Afghanistan and stabilize the situation there—otherwise its ill effects will spill over into Pakistan and strengthen extremism there. And yet—and here’s where the new trough of secret WikiLeaks comes in—Pakistani military intelligence, known as Inter-Services Intelligence, is indeed helping the Taliban against Americans in Afghanistan. To boot, the Pakistani government is providing safe haven to the Taliban in Northwest Pakistan, thus making it militarily impossible for U.S. forces to smash them.

To put the issue somewhat melodramatically: The United States is giving “moderate” Pakistanis and the Pakistani military billions of dollars yearly in military and economic aid, which allows  Pakistani military intelligence to “secretly” help the Taliban kill Americans in Afghanistan, which will drive America out of Afghanistan and undermine U.S. help for Pakistan.

All this flies in the face of the administration’s new line about an improving Af-Pak relationship. Yes, indeed, we’ve worked out a new trade agreement between these traditional adversaries. Yes, indeed, the Pakistanis are giving us the secret wink for our drone attacks against Taliban safe havens (even as they publicly condemn us for these drone attacks). Yes, indeed, Pakistanis are helping President Hamid Karzai talk with his fellow Pashtun Taliban. (Heaven knows what will come of this).

But let’s face it: Pakistan’s overriding interests in Afghanistan don’t have much to do with the United States. Their fixation is India, plain and simple. They don’t want India to gain any sort of foothold in Afghanistan and somehow encircle them. They’re pressing Washington for sophisticated American arms to fight India, not the Taliban. Some Pakistani leaders even worry of secret plotting between India and the United States against them, especially in Afghanistan.

Pakistani interests are not the same as America’s in Afghanistan, far from it. As it tries to explain away what these secret documents mean, the Obama administration should take time out to reconsider its basic policy toward Af-Pak.

A policy based on fundamental contradictions cannot stand.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.