In denial mode

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

Soldiers of the U.S. Army during a gun battle in Marjah, in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.-GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

Soldiers of the U.S. Army during a gun battle in Marjah, in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.-GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

The most striking confirmation in the mass of documents is the war's callous indifference to life.

NO good news comes out of Afghanistan. Lack of forward momentum for the military led to rancour along the chain of command and the subsequent firing of Afghan war chief General Stanley McChrystal. The general had the bad taste to call the showcase city of Marjah a bleeding ulcer. Even that heavily orchestrated battle has fallen into disrepute, with corrupt warlords in the saddle and the Taliban on the horizon. There was no breakthrough.

On July 18, Newsweek ran a long essay from Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Haas was a foreign policy man in the Bill Clinton White House and, importantly, the George W. Bush administration's coordinator for the future of Afghanistan. The essay, We're Not Winning, It's Not Worth It, went over the various options open to the Obama administration. Staying the course was out of the question since the policy was in drift. Withdrawal was too dangerous. Other, more creative, options had to be considered.

Dividing Afghanistan

One such is the partition of Afghanistan. The idea here is to go along the grain of what the policy-makers see as the Afghan tradition of a weak centre and a strong periphery. Haas put it thus:

One new idea put forward by Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. Ambassador to India, is for a de facto partition of Afghanistan. Under this approach, the United States would accept Taliban control of the Pashtun-dominated south so long as the Taliban did not welcome back Al Qaeda and did not seek to undermine stability in non-Pashtun areas of the country. If the Taliban violated these rules, the United States would attack them with bombers, drones, and Special Forces. U.S. economic and military support would continue to flow to non-Pashtun Afghans in the north and west of the country.

This Pashtunistan would become the preserve of the Taliban and, although Haas does not say so explicitly, of the Pakistani government. It would be Islamabad's sphere of interest, and responsibility.

Before Haas' idea could be vetted in the public domain, 92,000 classified documents from the Afghan war came in its way. These were the cluttered reports from the front lines of the war, whether written by soldiers, intelligence officials or informers. Going through them is like being in an archive of the present. One can see what sort of material came across the desks of the powerful in Washington, London and Brussels, as they made their policy decisions, and as they decided what to tell the public.

The most striking confirmation in the mass of documents is the war's callous indifference to life so many civilians die and are wounded, and so little care is given to the trials of those whose lives are now in a permanent war zone. Take the case of an incident, chosen almost at random, from March 21, 2007. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-led forces went into the town of Malekshay, chased a deaf man, Shum Khan, who ran from them out of fear and confusion. They shot him. He survived, but barely. The incident report ends brusquely, Solatia [compensation] was made in the form of supplies and the Element mission progressed. Such a callous end to an act of violence is not unique.

On July 9, 2006, Mohammad Baluch did not get his car off the road in Ghazni fast enough. The logs pick up the story, LN [local national] vehicle did not yield to US convoy (unknown to full details). Gunner shot into the vehicle and convoy kept going out of the area. Khan and Baluch survived. But not the members of a wedding party killed by Polish troops, or the many bus passengers shot by French and U.S. troops. The number of stories of wilful civilian casualties is remarkable. It has yet to bring forth an apology from the war makers.

No local intelligence

The second major finding from an analysis of the war logs is that the presence of the U.S. troops and their general lack of intelligence about Afghanistan has allowed articulate people in the country to use them to do their dirty work. People inform against their enemies and hope that the U.S. will take care of them. The logs show that the U.S. forces are driven as much by these petty local conflicts as they are by any overarching strategy to gain command over Afghanistan. It is not good news for the planners.

In 2006, a U.S. intelligence report notes that the informant divulges information for monetary remuneration, and so the report is likely fabricated or exaggerated. This is a risk of reliance upon intelligence for a fee. It means that one must read the war logs carefully. They cannot be taken at face value. However, if patterns emerge, these are often a good counter against individual fabrications. It is unlikely that the hungry imaginations of the unscrupulous informers are going to resemble each other.

ISI involvement

The third revelation is neither new, nor stark. In April 2009, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out that elements of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were connected to those militant organisations such as the Taliban. Mullen noted that it takes a fairly significant time to change an organisation, and pleaded with the U.S. Congress to give their relationship with Pakistan time to mature.

There is a complete acknowledgment, although not always in public, that the ISI was one of the founding partners of the Taliban, and that sections of the ISI have a very close relationship with parts of its leadership even today. The main person here is Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, who ran the ISI during the high point of the U.S.-driven mujahideen attack on Afghanistan (1987-89).

When disgust with the Afghan civil war led to the creation of the Taliban, Gul, sources say, was close at hand. He played a key role as liaison between the Taliban leadership and Islamabad. That role, it seems, has not diminished. Gul is a frequent presence in the war logs. Informants mention him in meetings with senior Taliban officials, even planning attacks with them.

In January 2009, informants place Gul at a meeting in Wana, South Waziristan, in Pakistan, with Afghan insurgent commanders. Three unidentified Arabs, who were considered important, were in the room. Gul discussed operations with the Arabs and the Afghans, telling them to focus their operation inside Afghanistan in exchange for the government of Pakistan's security forces turning a blind eye to the Afghan Taliban's presence in Pakistan.

This is explosive material. The U.S. Congress is furious, feeling played for fools by Islamabad. Gul has issued strong denials. Islamabad claims to be innocent. The U.S. establishment says there is no new news here. Senator Dianne Feinstein is clear: Pakistan has to make up its mind. But her Democratic colleague Carl Levin, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is calmer. The leaks, he told The Cable, reinforces what I and many others know has been the case, which is that there have been some playing both sides in the Pakistani intelligence services. There's been a belief that's been the case for some time and this reinforces it.

Levin wants Islamabad to do more: The Pakistanis have not gone after the Haqqani network, which is in North Waziristan; they have not gone after the Quetta Shura, which is openly operating in Quetta. They know where they are at. They have not taken strong action against terrorists who operate outside of Pakistan.

For Levin and Obama, Islamabad remains a viable partner that has to deal with rogue elements such as Gul, and to do more to establish itself as the legitimate force in the country. This view is not widely shared in the intelligence community. Some here see the Pakistani state as playing a duplicitous game to advance its interests not only in the northern tribal regions but also in Afghanistan. The enemy here, for Islamabad, is, of course, India.

Attacking Indian facilities

There are a number of instances of informants reporting on the role of Pakistani officials in the Afghan insurgency. The files have explosive allegations of Pakistani collusion with Afghan insurgents to attack Indian facilities and to kill Indian personnel.

One report, from March 23, 2008, is chilling. Indicated attacks against civil engineers and workers building roads in Nimruz Province are being planned. In one particular case, it was reported that the ISI ordered Serajuddin Haqqani to eliminate Indian nationals working in Afghanistan in exchange for amounts between 15,000 and 30,000 USD.

On November 18, 2007, there is a report of a threat on the Indian Consulate. ISI gave order to Sarkateep [member of ISI] to establish relations with some Afghans and to conduct attacks against Indian Consulships in Jalalabad, Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. Currently, Sarkateep is in Jalalabad. He established relations with a driver whose name is Sardar Shah [Indian Consulate employee] and he is going on to establish relations with another Afghan employee. After that he will go to Kabul.

The Indian Consulate was twice attacked by hand grenade fire in 2007, and the Embassy in Kabul was bombed on July 7, 2008. It was bombed again in 2009. In February, attackers bombed and fired upon the Hamid Guesthouse, which housed Indian doctors. Pakistan denied any role in these incidents. The war logs beg the question again.

Denials are the order of the day. So is the search for the source of the leak. This is a red herring. The real story is that we have confirmation once more that the Afghan war has become a festering humanitarian catastrophe. The leaks have made little dent in the Obama administration's ability to continue its operations. Two days after the leak, the U.S. Congress turned over an additional $37 billion to fund the Afghan war.

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