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The Afghanistan War Dairy: Getting the Inside Story

By Mohamed El-Khawas

Guyana Journal, August 2010

THE MONTH of July saw two important developments in U.S. politics surrounding the Afghanistan war. On July 25, 2010, Wikileaks posted on the Internet 77,000 classified documents on the Afghan War. These documents cover a period from January 2004, just ten months after the invasion of Iraq, to December 2009 when President Obama announced his decision to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Just two days later, the U.S. House of Representatives approved $37 billion to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Democrats were pressured by the White House to go along with the Senate version because President Obama wanted the bill passed before the summer recess. The Democrat's leaders had a difficult task. They were forced to compromise to get Republican support for the bill to offset strong opposition from liberal Democrats. The House passed the supplement by a vote of 308 to 114, but 102 Democrats voted against it because they have doubts about the war. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) said he was “so discouraged at the chances of our commitment in Afghanistan succeeding that I think it's time to say, no more.”

Two observations are worth noting: First, the leaked documents did not have an immediate impact on the House vote. Second, the vote suggests that elected officials in Washington may be out of touch with the increasing reluctance of their constituencies to keep putting funds into the unpopular war which has already cost the taxpayers $300 billion in nine years. Support for the war is already low. In a July poll by the Washington Post-ABC, 53 percent of adults said that the war has not been worth its costs. Funding for the war has become sensitive at a time when the public blames Washington for failing to deal with recession. The economic recovery has slowed, nearly 10 percent of working Americans are still without jobs, and the federal deficit has reached a level that has never been seen before.

The leaked secret materials might revive a debate on whether the U.S. should continue to spend tens of billions of dollars annually on a war rather than using the money at home to create jobs and save homes from foreclosure. The debate may heat up soon as Wikileaks releases more documents. They may give a more discouraging picture. These documents offer unusual insights into the war effort as seen by people in the trenches, not the folks in Washington. Such first-hand accounts tell much about actual conditions inside the war-torn country, providing new ammunition for those who question the effort, and they offer new evidence on whether the huge expenditure has been worthwhile.

A View of the Bush Strategies

The bulk of the leaked documents, collectively called the Afghanistan War Dairy, dealt with President Bush's war effort in Afghanistan. They suggest that the military situation was much worse than had been portrayed by the Bush White House. By 2004, the Taliban insurgents had regrouped and rearmed and were increasingly effective in launching new attacks on American and coalition forces. Yet, as the Taliban gained new momentum, U.S. fatalities were rising in Iraq, so the Bush administration put Afghanistan on the back burner. Bush took troops out of Afghanistan and sent them to Iraq with a result that is strikingly documented in the leaked documents. U.S. troops in Afghanistan were left without the necessary resources to fight. Military personnel repeatedly complained about shortages in supplies and hardware. Somehow, the hunt for Osama bin Laden had become secondary to capturing Iraq's President Saddam Hussein and controlling Iraq's oilfields. In 2006, the Taliban got a further boost when Pakistan's President Musharraf signed a truce that allowed them to cross the border into Afghanistan to carry out attacks.

The leaked documents confirm that the U.S. and coalition forces were losing ground between 2004 and 2007, while the Taliban were gaining the upper hand. As Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has commented, this leak demonstrates “that the war in Afghanistan was deteriorating over the past several years and that we were not winning.”

Pakistan in the Eye of the Storm

Some of the leaked documents suggest that Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been assisting the Taliban in planning and carrying out attacks on American and Afghan troops. The Islamabad government has denied the allegations, pointing out that they were old news, no longer relevant. However, the CIA insists that the ISI has maintained ties with the Afghan groups. They have given Pakistani officials lists of ISI and military operatives suspected of working with the insurgents but nothing has happened. So far, the CIA has rarely found evidence of direct ISI involvement in major attacks. An exception was the bombing of India's embassy in Kabul in 2008. Steven R. Kappes, the CIA deputy director, presented Pakistani officials with specific evidence showing that the ISI helped plan the deadly suicide bombing.

The leaked documents offer new specifics on many planned attacks but without providing supporting evidence to back up their claims, most of those attacks never took place. Retired Lt. Gen Hamid Gul, the ISI head between 1987 and 1989, was mentioned in several reports even though, according to Pakistani officials, he has had no contact with the spy agency since his retirement two decades ago. Gul had worked closely with the CIA to smuggle money and weapons to the Mujahedeen (Islamist fighters) to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan. Now, he sympathizes with the Taliban's campaign to liberate their country from “the invaders.” He often appears on talk shows and criticizes U.S. activities in the region. In the posted documents, he was accused of maintaining ties with Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar whose Afghan fighters have inflicted heavy casualties on coalition forces. Gul dismissed the allegations of his involvement as “absolute nonsense,” pointing out that this information came from India and was fed to the Afghan intelligence agents and American contractors, who “are paid for each report they file.”

The Obama administration is aware of the problems with Pakistan that are detailed in the secret documents and has taken measures to deal with them. Obama has sought to improve relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and has formed an alliance encompassing the three countries. He believes that Pakistan is a key to victory in Afghanistan. He has increased the use of drones and the Special Forces to kill Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders inside Pakistan. The sanctuaries are still a thorny issue, however. Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, acknowledged that “Pakistani soldiers and intelligence officials had worked along side the United States to capture or kill [Al-] Qaeda and Taliban leaders.” But he emphasized that the status quo is unacceptable and that safe havens “pose an intolerable threat.” He added that Pakistan must do more to address this problem. It is important for Washington to persuade rather than threaten Islamabad to close them. As James Jones, national security adviser, pointed out, “The problem with the Pakistanis is that the more you threaten them, the more they become entrenched and don't see a path forward with you.”


The Obama administration has played down the importance of the leak, pointing out that these documents don't deal with the current situation in Afghanistan. Most of the documents cover Bush's war effort in Afghanistan, giving critical new perspective on a period when the U.S. military was fighting two wars. The U.S. State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, stressed that the materials deal with past years and might “reflect situations and conditions and circumstances that have either been corrected already or are in the process of being corrected.”

From the outset, Obama reversed Bush's policy, ending the U.S. combat involvement in Iraq and concentrating on Afghanistan. He has sent more troops and more military hardware to take the momentum out of the Taliban hands and to defeat Al-Qaeda. He has reminded Americans that the people who had plotted the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. are still there and he has vowed to defeat them so they would never again become a threat to the U.S or Afghanistan.

The leaks so far have not affected Obama's strategy. It is too early to assess whether his surge will succeed. The military is facing many challenges to meet his deadline to begin withdrawal in July 2011. It might not be possible in view of the abrupt change of the U.S. top commander in Afghanistan in June 2010, which has delayed the full implementation of the counterinsurgency plan. So far, the Taliban have maintained their strong position. They have demonstrated their continuing ability to strike anywhere in the country, including in the capital, Kabul. They have increased their attacks, making July the worst month in the number of American casualties. Another problem is that President Karzai is not a reliable ally because he seems to have different priorities: himself, his family, his tribe, and the country in that order. He knows that Washington is planning to start pulling American troops out of Afghanistan next summer. He is pushing for national reconciliation to secure his future. President Obama should support Karzai's plan to reach out to the Taliban who are willing to lay down their arms. A power-sharing formula might be Obama's ticket out of Afghanistan. It might also give him more time and resources to fix nagging domestic problems at home, thus improving his chances of serving another term.

Washington, D.C.
August 16, 2010

Dr. Mohamed El-Khawas is a professor in the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Sciences, and Social Work at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.

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