Posted in Rants on July 27th, 2010 by Ed

Rather than constructing the longest post in ginandtacos history to cover both the content and the controversy of the Wikileaks release of Afghan War documents, I'm going to split this up into two days.

Despite the sensation, we have not learned much from the much-publicized release via Wikileaks of a treasure trove of DoD documents on Operation Enduring Freedom. The war isn't going particularly well (duh) and U.S. military operations are killing a lot more civilians than the press releases indicate (shocking). What is surprising is the extent to which the DoD is well aware of the prominent role of the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI) in supporting and even carrying out Taliban attacks. Since India exposed the role of the ISI in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks it has been clear to even the most casual observer that the goals of the U.S. and Pakistan are not aligned and that Pakistan should be considered a dubious ally at best, an enemy hiding in plain sight at worst.

In the Cold War era the U.S. had a bountiful roster of right-wing strongmen who ruled their nations with an iron fist, and such allies were always available to help the U.S. further its anti-communist foreign policy goals. Does America now have so few useful allies in the region that Pakistan – a corrupt, borderline-failed state with security and military agencies that support Islamic terrorist groups – is our best choice for an ally? Its strategic position bordering Afghanistan makes it a desirable ally, but how much bad behavior should one overlook to further the fantasy that we'll someday surround Afghanistan with stable, democratic neighbors?

The fundamental issue underlying the behavior of the ISI and the Pakistani military is the lack of effective control over all aspect of the state apparatus by the central government. Musharaff and his successor Asif Ali Zardari say the right things and, hell, might even mean them. But it is clear that whatever their intentions they lack meaningful control over the military and intelligence functions of the state. The left hand isn't sure what the right hand is doing. So Lesson One is that you can't negotiate foreign policy with a country that can't control rogue portions of its military infrastructure. Oh, and did we mention that it's a nuclear power? Of all the convoluted fantasies on the right about how al-Qaeda was going to build or steal nuclear weapons, these documents suggest that the most plausible scenario for a terrorist armed with a nuke is the ISI handing him one.

Aside from the role of Pakistan the only thing we're learning from these documents is that Enduring Freedom is going poorly. Really poorly. Like, even more poorly than we already assumed. Afghanistan was a curious issue in the wake of 9/11. The rationale for invading Afghanistan was far superior to that of Iraq later in 2003, yet it would not be possible to pick a country in which the odds of success – defining our goal as establishing a stable democratic state – would be lower. As the USSR learned in its ill conceived and disastrous Afghanistan misadventure from 1979 to 1989, Afghanistan is one of those countries that isn't really a country. On western (and Soviet) maps, yes, it is a country. But the effective power of the national government doesn't extend much beyond the borders of the capital city. This is extremely common in Third World countries. And make no mistake, this is a Third World country.

Despite the complete lack of any valid reason supported by evidence to invade Iraq, at least Iraq offered some sliver of hope for long-term success. It was a Second World country, having a particularly shitty government but a government nonetheless. A government that had effective authority over all (or nearly all) of the land within its borders. A government with infrastructure – utilities, schools, roads, etc. – and public resignation to its authority. Everyone within and outside of Iraq knew who was in charge. This is not true in Afghanistan and it never has been. It is a desolate, impoverished amalgam of tribal groups and regions cobbled together by European colonialist cartography. Outside of Kabul, and particularly in Balochistan, Sindh, and the "Federally Administered Tribal Territory", the nominal government has almost no authority. In some tribal areas it has none at all, and whatever organized government exists is local, regional, or tribal.

The rationale for deposing the Taliban was defensible, but the expectation that it could be replaced with a stable, effective central government was and is not. The country can't be pacified because it was never a country, let alone a pacified one, to begin with. And the Wikileaks documents draw in high relief the futility of playing Terrorist Whack-a-Mole in the vast, remote, and lawless Afghan countryside. The U.S. wants, and has been used to finding in the past, a strongman who can assert authority over Afghanistan and do so in a way that suits American interests. But there is no Shah, no Pinochet, and no Trujillo on the horizon. The U.S. will remain an unwanted presence among the population and the country will remain a nation in name only.

In short, these documents only reinforce what we already knew or deeply suspected. Pakistan sounds like an ally and acts like an enemy and OEF is a war the U.S. cannot possibly win if it defines winning as establishing an Afghan government friendly to American interests and hostile to Islamic terrorism. We'll see a National Hockey League team in Kabul before we see a government that can impose order and is willing to take marching orders from Washington. As Lincoln once quipped about South Carolina, it appears that Afghanistan is too weak to be considered a nation but too large to commit to an insane asylum.