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July 26, 2010

Who Will Tell the People? UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

If you want a picture perfect example of the disconnect between Washington elites and the American people the reaction to the massive leak of 92,000 pages of secret intelligence regarding the war in Afghanistan is a good place to start.

Here is the New York Times on the close relationship between Pakistan and are nominal enemy in Afghanistan, the Taliban:

The documents suggest that Pakistan, an ostensible ally of the United States, allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders.

Taken together, the reports indicate that American soldiers on the ground are inundated with accounts of a network of Pakistani assets and collaborators that runs from the Pakistani tribal belt along the Afghan border, through southern Afghanistan, and all the way to the capital, Kabul.

. . . While current and former American officials interviewed could not corroborate individual reports, they said that the portrait of the spy agency’s collaboration with the Afghan insurgency was broadly consistent with other classified intelligence.

Der Spiegel goes even further:

The documents clearly show that the Pakistani intelligence agency is the most important accomplice the Taliban has outside of Afghanistan. The war against the Afghan security forces, the Americans and their ISAF allies is still being conducted from Pakistan.

The country is an important safe haven for enemy forces -- and serves as a base for issuing their deployment. New recruits to the Taliban stream across the Pakistan-Afghan border, including feared foreign fighters -- among them Arabs, Chechnyans, Uzbekis, Uighurs and even European Islamists.

According to the war logs, the ISI envoys are present when insurgent commanders hold war councils -- and even give specific orders to carry out murders. These include orders to try to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai. For example, a threat report dated August 21, 2008 warned: "Colonel Mohammad Yusuf from the ISI had directed Taliban official Maulawi Izzatullah to see that Karzai was assassinated." 

The Guardian uncovers evidence that the Afghan and Pakistani Army - nominal allies in the fight against the Taliban - are engaging in regular firefights along the Durand Line.

To the laymen this might seem like a pretty big deal; one of the largest recipients of US foreign assistance - and the country whose stability is a big part of the stated reason why we are in Afghanistan - is actually working against US goals and directly supporting insurgent forces. 

But if you look at the reaction of your foreign policy community - nothing to see here. Andrew Exum, jokes that this is about as shocking as finding out Afghanistan has four syllables. The bottom line seems to be; that we knew this already - Pakistani support for the Taliban is old news.

But these documents don't exactly jibe with what President Obama had to say about Pakistan in December at West Point:

In recent years, as innocents have been killed from Karachi to Islamabad, it has become clear that it is the Pakistani people who are the most endangered by extremism. Public opinion has turned. The Pakistani Army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. And there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy.

In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear. 

America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan's democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistani people must know: America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan's security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.

Hmm, for something that everyone seemed to know was true, it's funny how President Obama didn't seem fit to mention it in his public remarks explaining why he was sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. And I'm genuinely curious if any of the various supporters of escalation felt urged to mention at the time that the American people were receiving a rather incomplete picture of the war their country was fighting in Afghanistan - and the role of Pakistan in prosecuting that conflict. 

Just as President Obama inaccurately conflated the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban in his West Point speech (the former is a target of the Pakistani military; the latter is protected by it), the White House continues to confuse this point, “The Pakistani government — and Pakistan’s military and intelligence services — must continue their strategic shift against violent extremist groups within their borders,” noted White House spokesman Ben Rhodes.

Which violent extremist group? Praising the Taliban for going after enemies of the Pakistani state doesn't really deal with the larger issue of Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban, not to mention the continued protection of top al Qaeda leaders. This is not a semantic point; it speaks to the very duplicity practiced daily by the Pakistani government and its military.

In his statement on the Wikileaks disclosures, National Security Advisor Jim Jones congratulates the Pakistani military for going after Taliban forces that killed hundreds of Pakistani civilians, but fails to mention the protection provided by Pakistan for the insurgent forces that are killing Afghan civilians and, of course, US troops. 

Indeed, take one look at the fact sheets put forward by the White House on this: lots of quotes from US officials decrying Pakistani support for "extremists" or lumping all Taliban groups under an al Qaeda umbrella. But far fewer make the connection between the ISI's support for the Afghan Taliban or describe the divergent ways in which the Pakistani government deals with the Pakistan Taliban and Afghan Taliban. But not to worry, "everyone knows" about that.

And as Les Gelb helpfully points out, one of the key rationales that US policymakers have used to support our presence in Afghanistan is to stabilize Pakistan - yet as "everyone knows" the Pakistanis are actively undermining our stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. As Gelb points out, these documents further demonstrate that US goals in Afghanistan are not quite the same as the Pakistani government - even if Secretary of State Clinton declares the US and Pakistan are "partners joined in common cause."

Now to be fair the Pakistani government doesn't have complete control over the actions of the ISI, which is the key supporter in Pakistan of the Taliban - but that hardly exonerates the Pakistani's for their behavior or for their failure to go after al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban safe havens at the same time they are receiving billions in US aid.

Of course, the disconnect between these words and the reality in Afghanistan has been well-known among many in the foreign policy establishment for some time. So in a sense, the shoulder shruggers are right - for those who have followed this conflict closely nothing in these documents is new . . . as it pertains to the war itself. 

But what it tells us about the incomplete information being fed to the American people about the war being fought in their name - and the arrogance of official Washington in pooh-poohing these revelations - well that's something else altogether. 

UPDATE: Over at his eponymous blog my colleague Bernard Finel makes a similar point:

If these documents paint an accurate picture, it reveals a troubling disconnect between public pronouncements and private assessments.  Ultimately, democratic governance and accountability requires giving the public sufficient information to make informed decisions. Keep doubts and concerns private may serve legitimate strategic objectives, but we need to acknowledge that our strategic objectives in Afghanistan may be at odds with the requirements of democratic governance at home.  In short, is it ever worth fighting a war that requires your to compromise and weaken accountability at home? 


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Now to be fair the Pakistani government doesn't have complete control over the actions of the ISI, which is the key supporter in Pakistan of the Taliban - but that hardly exonerates the Pakistani's for their behavior or for their failure to go after al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban safe havens at the same time they are receiving billions in US aid.
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