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.
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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.


  • party with tina says:

    Eh, I tend to disagree with the sentiment, Afghanistan will like begin developing very soon, esp due to the vast mineral resources found within her borders. The soviets did lose control of Afghanistan, not because the muhajideen were so strong. They were relatively isolated from the majority of the afghani populace, and the russians were striking heavy blows against them. BUT, we armed them with stinger missiles, and they started shooting down hinds and troop carriers regularly.

    This ISI involvement was something that happened like 2 years ago, and nobody reported, it's not really been continuous. We called Pakistan out for being such a dubious ally, and they launched their offensive in Waziristan(?).

    Annnyywaaaaaay, I basically disagree with your overall sentiment not because of the potential military failure, but because soon there will likely be a huge international corporate interest in the well being of the fledgling state. It's not as though we've had some mass of casualties, the Taliban are not the viet cong, they're basically inept, truth be told.

  • The last nine years of our military policy has done nothing except kill a lot of people and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that our military leadership is still attempting to fight the European theater of WWII (and, due to the absence of actual Nazis, failing miserably). We learned nothing from Korea and nothing from Vietnam. Anyone in the military chain of command 2001-2010 who has ever suggested we could accomplish anything more than a total clusterfuck in Afghanistan should be working at McDonald's now.

    No, that's not fair. Even McDonald's employees have to be smart enough to not stick their hand in the fryer and then insist that removing it would be failure.

    But hey, according to WorldNutDaily, this war is all Obama's fault.

  • Crazy for Urban Planning says:

    I'm with Ed here. Afghanistan is simply not a nation with any cohesion at all. We all know this story by now.

    The interesting point for me is just how all nations are losing cohesion. Think about it for a moment, what place has cohesion anymore? It used to be even Americans generally shared something from Alaska to Maine and California to the cesspool that is Florida; the bizarre media's influence in turning us into a bunch of tribally oriented zealots has changed this. Immigration changed it a little bit too. Whats Germany's most popular food today? Turkish dunor kabob! Who are the only people who ever do any good protesting in Paris these days? North Africans outside of Paris who feel like they have gotten a raw deal since the metro hasn't been expanded to their neighborhood.

    The world is changing, I think we ought to hang on and enjoy the show.

  • Duverger's Outlaw says:

    Hey some corrections; Balochistan, Sindh, and FATA are provinces of Pakistan, not Afghanistan. So the Afghan government only has effective control of Kabul. Also, even the Pakistani government cannot effectively control FATA, which is basically populated by Pashtoons.

  • party with tina says:

    Actually General Mccrystal was former special forces, I'm not sure about patreus, but they're definitely not into European Theatre thinking. Our policy is total counter insurgency, set up bases, insert operators into towns, prepare close air support and quick reaction teams for large engagements, provide medical care and protection to populace, deliver humanitarian aid. Basic battle plan.

  • Wow.

    Even with the wiki leaks thing, I never expected Ed to say Iraq has a better chance of success than Afghanistan.

  • @party with Tina – Nigeria called, they say that happening on a shitload of mineral resources does not lead to stability, peace and Democracy.

    but because soon there will likely be a huge international corporate interest in the well being of the fledgling state

    a) There already was international corporate interest in running a natural gas pipeline across Afghanistan going back to at least 1996.

    b) when have huge international corporate interests ever focused on the well-being of anything other than their bottom lines? No one with a stake in ridding Afghanistan of its newfound mineral wealth will care one whit about any more stability than is necessary to get the job done for the least amount of money, and as Africa has shown us, that's not a hell of a lot of stability.

  • The official line I keep hearing is "Our troops are encountering more resistance (and more casualties) and this means that we are successfully taking the fight to the enemy!"

    Bullshit. If you go to Alaska for a fishing vacation and you walk down on the beach in July, you are bound to see a nice fat grizzly bear getting herself some dinner. If you poke her with a stick she will take a swipe at you. Don't come back to the lodge with half your face ripped off and tell me that you just "kicked that bear's ass!"

  • Crazy for Urban Planning says:

    Yes tina – Your comment strikes me as very naive and bordering on preposterous.

  • In general, I agree with the overall thrust of this post. We didn't learn much from the leaked documents, however, I think we can learn a great deal from the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan. You give it short shrift here, but the Soviet withdrawal of Afghanistan was remarkably well-planned and executed. They left behind a functioning rentier state with a relatively modern army. Because of the investment they put in, Najibullah's DRA, weak and fragmented as it was, was able to survive the immediate shock of the Soviet collapse. It was only this shock combined with Pakistani support of the Mujahiden that led to the downfall of the regime.

    We would do well to imitate the policies of the Soviets. We don't need Afghanistan to be a functioning modern state (sorry party with Tina- you are smoking crack if you think the country's difficult to access Lithium supplies will allow for development), but we could live with a rentier state that relied upon external sources of funding (our tax dollars) to mediate local issues. This isn't the strong-man model. It is something much more modest. We don't need the state to penetrate local communities (something it has never done) only to act as an arbitrator.

    Finally, I didn't know Afghanistan's status as a third-world country was even up for debate.

  • And sorry party with tina, but ISI involvement predated our engagement with Afghanistan and will continue long after we are gone (so long as India still exists as a state, that is).

  • Yes, as pretty much all of Africa has proven, mineral and petroleum wealth inexorably leads to political stability.

    That is the dumbest argument I have ever heard, and I once heard David Horowitz speak.

  • And I profusely apologize for conflating the tribal areas of Pakistan with Afghanistan. I will leave the error uncorrected as a testament to my inexpert grasp of the -stans of the Middle East.

  • @party with tina – Mineral resource is definitely no guarantee of success:

    Personally I'm agnostic on what will happen in Afghanistan. One important factor to consider is that these documents mostly cover the Bush years of the war. Many documents highlight people bitching about Afghanistan being Iraq's malnourished redheaded stepbrother. With the new troop deployment levels and the focus on counterinsurgency doctrine, things may start to change.

    I agree we'll never completely "unify" the country, but I believe the only measure of success we should have is if we leave the country stable enough to prevent the return of the Taliban.

  • Duverger's Outlaw says:

    Well, it was not crucial for your argument anyway. Sindh though is not tribal; it is the second richest and probably most urbanized province of Pakistan (Karachi, the financial capital is its capital city). Was a major center of international trade and commerce going back 500 years.

  • Elder Futhark says:

    Let's face it, everyone knew but wouldn't say – if we had to invade anyone – was that we invaded the wrong two countries. We really should have fucked with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. But we couldn't. So we did the only thing we could do. Kick the living shit out of two sickly little children that just happened to be neighbors to the real troublemakers, and hope the message got through. It didn't.

    (We probably should have sent that little cocksucker Kim Jong Il permanently into orbit with a flick of our finger. No one would have objected for long).

  • Strangepork says:

    Ed, I take issue with the blatant lie you told above. David Horowitz doesn't speak, they just smear peanut butter on the roof of his mouth to make it look like he's talking.

  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo would also like to weigh in on the subject of high-value natural resources invariably leading to political stability and a good life for its citizenry.

    IMHO, there might have been some hope for stability in Afghanistan if the US had allowed the king, ancient though he was, to re-establish a constitutional monarchy when he returned to Afghanistan in 2002. That would have at least aligned with centuries of tradition and helped provide the illusion of a return to normalcy. Instead the US insisted on its chosen puppet, and we can all see how well that's worked out.

  • Re; "you can't negotiate foreign policy with a country that can't control rogue portions of its military infrastructure" Maybe you have identified the reason we are so unpopular around the globe nowadays. BTW, killing foreigners and driving them out has been the Afghan national pastime since the days of Alexander the Great. Someone please admit WE are the cause of this "instability" Americans are so concerned with. Of course, the mineral resources will make it more difficult to rid of the latest invaders.

  • Paul W. Luscher says:

    Gotta say one thing about the boomers: when they were agin a war they were really agin it-even up to the level of domestic terrorism. Now, re the war in Afghanistan, it's more like, "Meh. What's Snookie up to on Jersey Shore?"

    Big diff? A professional army and no draft. Very few people have a stake in the war. It's somebody else's kid being killed now, so who cares?

    Yep, the military got pretty smart, post-Vietnam. Now they can fight wars forever and ever, and no one (except the soldiers involved and their loved ones) really cares. Out of sight, out of mind….

  • party with tina says:

    There are a lot of differences between the Congo and Afghanistan. The U.S. is already heavily involved in a "nation building" exercise there, with the knowledge that there is easily accessible mineral wealth in Afghanistan, it's my OPINION, that this is going to turn into another Iraq situation. Big multinationals hiring tons of people, private security firms, locals, training their own people, etc.

    In my mind Iraq was a quagmire until oil contracts began to be finalized and private companies started putting their own boots on the ground. I could be wrong, it's more of a prediction.

    The only thing I would say is WRONG about this post is the stuff about Pakistan. It's all old news, people were writing about the ISI's involvement in the Taliban for a while. The U.S. government already got after Pakistan, which was for the time completely ignoring the 'threat' within its own borders and utilizing the majority of it's military machine to prepare for some perceived threat from India. Obama forced them to change their priorities and the Pakistani military is now committed positively into a fight, which puts them at odds with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in a way that is nearly irredeemable.

    The story about the ISI was that they were effectively pacifying Al Qaeda and the Taliban in order to prevent any disorder in the Urban areas, not that they were positively aiding them.

  • I agree with Oxus above: ISI support of the Taliban in Afghanistan goes back decades. Crile discusses it at the end of "Charlie Wilson's War" (the book, not the movie). Robert Kaplan wrote about this many times over the years in the Atlantic, including the involvement of the ISI in A. Q. Khan's nuclear adventures. I don't understand why everyone is acting like the ISI support of the Taliban is a revelation. I thought it was common knowledge. Hell, I knew about it and I'm a Biochemist, and a not particularly well-read one at that. But Ed is correct: the Pakistani central government has little or no control over vast segments of its national security apparatus. And this is the real danger in the AfPak region.

  • @ party with tina, you are factually dead wrong when you write:

    "The story about the ISI was that they were effectively pacifying Al Qaeda and the Taliban in order to prevent any disorder in the Urban areas, not that they were positively aiding them."

    At the end of 2001, the ISI orchestrated the so-called "airlift of evil." This was the event in which thousands of Pakistani operatives, Taliban, and al Queda agents were flown out of Kunduz during a three month period. Any way you look at this, it is direct "positive" aid.

    And the 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul also had ISI fingerprints all over it.

    Now, it does seem that statements that the newly released documents present clear-cut evidence of the ISI's direct complicity in post-2008 attacks are way overblown. However, I don't think that we need this evidence. As others have said (Druid, Ed), the state of Pakistan is complicated and despite Pakistani military actions in its northwest (which has been costly in many ways) it is absurd to assume that the ISI has completely cut its support to the Taliban. The ISI got involved with the Taliban at the beginning (1994) and it has field agents who have spent 10+ years on the ground with members of the Taliban, some of which have been accused of going "native".

    In short, the burden of proof is on you (and others who would make this argument) to provide evidence that the ISI (not the Pakistan civilian government) is suddenly and abruptly no longer supporting the Taliban.

  • The quote about South Carolina is from James Louis Petigru, a highly respected lawyer in South Carolina during the War of Northern Aggression — who opposed secession. His quote was: "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."

    As for Afghanistan, your analysis is spot on. Wishing that we could leave the country stable enough to prevent the return of the Taliban is nice but it is a pipe dream. Some things just cannot be done and telling ourselves they can be done is foolish and expensive hubris.

    For some great info and analysis on the neocon wet dream of a "New American Century" check out Gwynne Dyer's books:

    Ignorant Armies: Sliding Into War in Iraq (2003) ISBN 0-7710-2977-2
    Future: Tense : The Coming World Order (2004) ISBN 0-7710-2978-0
    With Every Mistake (2005) ISBN 0-679-31402-4
    The Mess They Made: The Middle East After Iraq (2007) ISBN 0-7710-2980-2

    And here is his latest book, this one on the climate and geopolitical instability:
    Climate Wars (2008) ISBN 978-0-307-35583-6

    I have long been a silent fan of yours!

  • Bob / Pittsburgh says:

    "you can't negotiate foreign policy with a country that can't control rogue portions of its military infrastructure" – might apply to the US as well as to Pakistan.

  • I've studied Afghanistan extensively. Here are my thoughts.

    Afghanistan is dynamic, and with the rapid pace at which things can change, what is set up is too structured and too centralized to work. In 2001, we thought we could oust the Taliban and set up shop in Kabul. In fact, it was so easy, we went to Iraq to do the same. But after Tora Bora and Operation Anaconda, things changed. The Taliban and al-Qai'da reformed into an insurgent force called by scholars as the neo-Taliban.

    Meanwhile, foreign governments were assisting Hamid Karzai create his government in Kabul. The heavily centralized government was structured this way to accept massive amounts of foreign aid and assistance. In other words, it was never set up to provide governance, administration, and the allocation of basic services and resources necessary to properly run a country.

    During this time, the neo-Taliban were returning to their old safe havens while numerous US defense contractors, aid agencies and non-profits set up shop in Kabul. The neo-Taliban set up shop and actually set up parallel governments in place of the inadequacies of the Karzai regime such as Islamic courts. In Helmand Province there were even instances where primitive hospitals were constructed.

    While the neo-Taliban remains unpopular due to its goals of implementing harsh Shari'a law, they are seen as a necessary evil to put up with because Karzai's government is too busy making themselves look good through Western media outlets. They are corrupt, predatory, and have little consideration or thought about their supposed constituents. Because of this, the neo-Taliban is the only alternative, and Afghans are turning to them, knowing that once ISAF leaves, the government will not have the capacity or the capability to effectively fight the neo-Taliban.

    Afghanistan does not fall within the definition of a state in the Westphalian sense. Rather, it is a geographic area in which clans, factions, and tribes rule through an Islamic form of local government. The centralized government cannot penetrate these networks while the insurgents can with ease.

    The government of Afghanistan can only become legitimate once it governs at the local level, integrating the tribes, clans, and various other groups to allow for proper representation and allocation of resources locally. People need water to drink, food to eat, electricity, and heating oil. They don't give a shit about democracy–they are just trying to survive. The United States does not understand Afghanistan enough to commit to a full counterinsurgency strategy. Rather, it is attempting to build the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army along with the government to make up for this disparity. Unfortunately, the damage has been done and the way the government is structured, I am afraid that it will not last more than a few months without external assistance. Karzai knows this, and is looking to open dialog with more moderate elements of the insurgency, but in the eyes of Afghans, he seems weak, attempting to negotiate against his enemy while being a puppet of the West.

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