Leaked war papers reinforce what we already knew

Pakistani intelligence is in bed with the Taliban, and Karzai regime is corrupt

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 28, 2010

There's nothing like a trove of leaked documents to stir up a perfect summer storm, and the 92,000 military reports on the war in Afghanistan are probably the most consequential leak since the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War were published.

Back then, in 1971, U.S. president Richard Nixon was so infuriated that his government not only took the New York Times and Washington Post to court, but the White House authorized the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office that led to the Watergate burglary and ultimately to Nixon's resignation.

This is different. The 92,000 documents have been released to three publications, including the Times in the U.S., but have been posted by the whistle blowing website WikiLeaks (not to be confused with the mainstream online encyclopedia, Wikipedia). It's not known who leaked the documents to the website, but they are up there for anyone, including the Taliban and Al-Qa'ida, who wants to read them.

The field reports, covering a six-year period from 2004-2009, tell us what we already know -that the mission is not going very well for the U.S. and its NATO allies, including Canada.

There appear to be four main points, also well known.

First, that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency has been sheltering, nurturing, and financing the Taliban insurgency in the wilds of western Pakistan, and neither the U.S. nor the Afghans, to say nothing of the Pakistani government, have been able to do much about it. And if NATO and Afghanistan can't secure the border with Pakistan, they can't secure the country.

Second, that the Karzai government in Kabul is systemically corrupt, which is not a good way to win the hearts and minds of its own people.

Third, that the Afghans have insufficient security forces, both military and police, to secure the country. And until they achieve wage parity with the Taliban, they won't develop enough security.

Fourth, stuff happens. Collateral damage, like the NATO air raid that went horribly wrong the other day, killing dozens of civilians. Another way not to win hearts and minds. Or friendly fire, like the 2006 incident in which it is alleged in the WikiLeaks that four Canadian soldiers were killed. In Ottawa, the government denies this, but there will certainly be calls for an inquiry (there are always calls for a public inquiry in Ottawa).

Then there is the question of whether detainees have been abused or tortured. Julian Assange, the Australianborn whistleblower behind WikiLeaks, alleges the field reports show evidence of unspecified war crimes. In Canada, we've already been through this in the argument over the release of documents pertaining to Afghan detainees.

To the extent that forward operations and ongoing strategy might be compromised by the WikiLeaks posting, that would be obvious cause for dismay in NATO countries, including Canada. With more than 150 deaths, mostly from roadside explosions and suicide bombers, Canadian forces have already paid a high price on the Afghan mission.

For the rest, the WikiLeaks archive is evidently posted without context or background, a very different situation from the Pentagon Papers, a coherent and comprehensive internal assessment of the Vietnam War.

And the timeline on the leaked documents expired last fall, taking no account of the U.S. troop surge since then. One of the reasons the mission had been going poorly for NATO is that the Americans were relatively under-strength and other countries had to bear a heavier burden, risking being spread too thin. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Kandahar region, home of the Taliban, where Canadian soldiers have been posted for the last five years.

That has changed since Barack Obama's speech at West Point last December in which he announced a tripling of U.S. forces to 100,000 troops in 2010, followed by a drawdown beginning in mid-2011, the same time the Canadians are expected to end our combat role. That's a critical mass of sophisticated force.

Then there's the arrival of the new American commander, General David Petraeus, perhaps the most successful U.S. field general since the Second World War. He's also a very good politician, admired in Washington, Kabul and all the NATO capitals, including Ottawa. He's the architect of the successful U.S. surge in Iraq, and the principal author of the U.S. counterinsurgency manual, which he sums up in four words: "Clear, hold, and build."

One of his first decisions was to postpone a planned summer offensive to attempt to secure Kandahar. At present, it might not fit Petraeus's ground rules for counter-insurgency, and in that sense discretion might be the better part of valour.

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