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With allies like this: what the Wikileaks war logs say about Pakistan

Commentary, 28 July 2010
Americas, International Institutions, Central and South Asia
While Wikileaks’ widely-publicised military leak has turned the media spotlight onto Pakistan, the country’s involvement in Afghanistan will come as little surprise to coalition troops. The unfavourable timing of the leak, however, together with its substantial effect on public support for the war, means that Washington must act now to bring Pakistan back onto side.

While Wikileaks' widely-publicised military leak has turned the media spotlight onto Pakistan, the country's involvement in Afghanistan will come as little surprise to coalition troops. The unfavourable timing of the leak, however, together with its substantial effect on public support for the war, means that Washington must act now to bring Pakistan back onto side.

By Shashank Joshi for

Pakistan flag

In the age of insurgency and counterinsurgency, we assume that it is public support - rather than endless money - that forms the sinews of war. When this has fractured, the edifice of the war teeters. Despite historically negligible casualties, a slew of coalition partners will depart Afghanistan in this or the coming years, the Dutch as early as the Autumn. But although popular support has received a fresh battering, the mass leak of Pentagon war logs also spotlights the serious failure of alliance management.

Quantity, not quality

The leak has revealed almost no information that is truly new. That Pakistan supports the insurgency, that civilian casualties have been worse than thought, and that the famously Soviet-killing heat-seeking missiles may be in use will surprise no one who has followed the war's trajectory since things fell apart during 2005-6. Like Captain Renault's shock at discovering gambling in the Casablanca cafe, the astonishment is more ritualistic than real.

But the release of the information en masse rather than piecemeal radically amplifies its public impact. So too does Wikileaks' adept cooperation with major media outlets, and the timing of the leak - immediately after General McChrystal's ignominious departure and the bloodiest ever month of the war. These factors suggest that the tangled mass of raw intelligence could - and should - initiate the beginnings of a strategic turn.

A reluctant response

The Obama White House has, however, responded in lacklustre fashion. It did not want to have this debate before its troop surge could show results. Five months after an offensive in Marjah, it is still waiting. Blaming the Bush administration for 'under-resourcing' is a desperate and misleading reaction (though the war was indeed bungled badly from 2001 to 2009). This claim is tenuous not just because nearly 29,000 of the logs date from Obama's tenure. It is more worrying because it implies that resources alone - even applied as part of an articulated counterinsurgency strategy - are the binding constraint on the war. A string of American officials stepped up to defend Pakistan. The most spokesmen were willing to concede was the tepid observation that the 'status quo' was 'unacceptable'.

The war logs should have finally shattered this illusion, and revealed the grotesque irony of the war. Washington's 'major non-NATO ally', Pakistan, is squarely responsible for the death of coalition troops and the continued disintegration of its neighbour, Afghanistan. This is an alliance strategy with a masochist core. Yet the Obama administration, which unlike Congress is perfectly cognisant of the full spectrum of Pakistani malfeasance, continues to funnel into it a billion dollars annually even as Islamabad denies the accumulating mountains of evidence implicating its security establishment.

ISI involvement

The story extends beyond safe havens, important as these are (both in Waziristan and Baluchistan). The period of the logs covers the period when Pakistan's current army chief, General Kayani, was chief of the spy agency, the ISI. This week, his term was extended for three years, only the second time in Pakistani history that a civilian government has done so. In the war logs, serving officers of the ISI and other military personnel are reported to have organised Taliban offensives (for instance, the 2006 assault on Maruf), exhorted and helped the Haqqani network to launch suicide attacks on Indian interests (such as the Indian embassy in Kabul, repeatedly), and supplied cross-border fire support for infiltrators. A former director of the ISI from 1987 to 1989, Hamid Gul, reportedly met extensively with militants, including representatives of Al-Qa'ida. He remains in contact with the army. It is disingenuous to claim that these are sins of omission.

A wider picture

Many of the leaked reports are likely sourced from Afghan intelligence, historically mistrustful of Pakistan. Others are unreliable. But the behaviours revealed are but minor details on a wide tapestry gradually woven over the past decades, depicting a military irredeemably tied into the overlapping militant networks of its own creation. It is critical that we now recognise that these are neither rogue agents nor peripheral mavericks, but actors in conformity with part of the organisational essence of the Pakistan military. Its desire to restore influence in Kabul is normal diplomatic behaviour, but the means of its pursuit are utterly hostile to the objective for which 300 British soldiers have died.

Dealing with Pakistan

The first imperative is to accept that inducements have not worked. The $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar aid package to Pakistan has done shockingly little to tame Pakistan's self-destructive quest for ' strategic depth'. This could have been easily foreseen. Though it remains true that Washington is dependent on Pakistan for both supply lines into Afghanistan and intelligence, it now strains credulity to suppose that these preclude a more coercive and less munificent approach.

The first step is to slash the flow of money to Pakistan that is ultimately resulting in the deaths of Indian and Afghan civilians and coalition troops. Aid is fungible, and the ground-level anger felt by US troops towards Pakistan as revealed in the war logs is entirely understandable.

Subsequently, more must be done to cultivate both alternative supply lines into Afghanistan and sources of leverage against the Pakistan military. The US should also make clear that Pakistan's effort to manoeuvre the brutal and Al-Qa'ida linked Haqqani network into a settlement is unacceptable, particularly when underpinned by a strategy of unequivocal terrorism.

The effect of publicity

The full human cost of Pakistan's diplomatic-military effort has now received greater publicity than at any single point in the past. The backlash to this presents an opportunity to ensure that Pakistan does not succeed in destroying the residual prospect of a constitutionally governed and stable Afghanistan. The public salience of the Wikileaks documents, and the emerging discontent from Congress, ought to reinforce the US' ability to twist arms. They must exploit this, and it is incumbent on allies - including Britain - to pressure Washington to do so.

The cognitive dissonance kicks in when we observe that Pakistan has simultaneously borne tremendous costs in its own wars against those militants it deems threats. Over the past half-decade, nearly 10,000 Pakistani civilians and upwards of 3,000 security forces have died. These are staggering figures, almost unimaginable in the West. It is pernicious and counterproductive to dismiss them as the just deserts of the military's actions.

Taking action

Any attempt to pressure Pakistan must concurrently reach out to its beleaguered population, demonstrating that their predicament and sacrifices are understood and valued. The Pakistani Taliban, which has wrought astonishing havoc on formerly peaceful areas of Pakistan, must be portrayed not as a distinct and isolable group but a strand of the overlapping networks of terrorism that blight the region.

Cutting through these networks would be a painful, incredibly violent, and institutionally tortuous process. But in the long-term, it would be of incalculable benefit to Pakistan itself. Protestations invoking the country's casualty figures and hollow denials of responsibility can no longer be used as a rhetorical shield behind which the army can give succour to terrorists and insurgents. It is imperative to help the Pakistani public to arrive at this conclusion.

Given that the leaks present a sorry picture of the war's course, General Petraeus and President Obama possess an ever-tightening time constraint on initiating and managing this turn. If they fail to do so, it would require extreme reserves of optimism to suppose that the war's course will be turned by diligent counterinsurgency alone.


Shashank Joshi
Senior Research Fellow

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East, with a... read more

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