Friday, July 30, 2010

Did Wikileaks change anything?


I was planning to write on the ICJ's Kosovo decision, and I’m sorry that I’ve not got to that yet – hopefully I’ll get to read it on the weekend. Instead, I’m going to scribble on the Wikileaks publication of the formerly classified files on Afghanistan which came into the public domain this week.

What difference does "Wikileakgate" actually make? At one level, this is clearly a massive security breach that needs to be investigate, but the real challenge is that there is a danger to a number of informants whose identity can be ascertained. Worse, it sends a message to future potential informants that in cooperating with American and NATO forces that they cannot guarantee their identities will be protected. In this, Hamid Karzai is right, and it makes gathering human intelligence much more difficult.

Beyond this, however, there is a broader question of “so what?” Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) may be playing both sides of the game in Afghanistan? Hardly a surprise – Pakistan has sought “strategic depth” in its quasi-existential proxy war with India for decades, and it is equally unsurprising that ISI is alleged to have maintained contacts with the Soviet-era mujahedeen groups which it funnelled equipment and fighters to in the 80s and then to the Taliban which ISI played a major role in sponsoring in the 90s. Indeed, NATO will probably need these contacts to talk to the Taliban and the other rebels based in Pakistani territory.

Moreover, does the Afghan operation look like it is achieving its aims? Assuming that the aims are to create time, space and conditions for the Afghan government to build a state structure that can ensure that Afghan territory cannot be used for the training and preparation of attacks on the West, and that this is achieved by building a truly demotic and responsive state in Afghanistan, the scorecard must be mixed.

For me, the greatest failure has been western unwillingness to allow democratic norms to operate, instead overlooking Presidential election anomalies that saw Hamid Karzai re-elected despite serious questions over the elections. Worse, combined with systematic corruption, this democratic deficit acts as a deeply corrosive force on the nascent Afghan state, as well as providing clear recruiting messages for the Taliban’s blend of Pashtun nationalism and religious fundamentalism. It is essential to keep repeating that what is needed is a political and developmental solution, and that though the military’s role in creating the security conditions for this to occur is critical, there is no exclusively military “solution” to the Afghan conflict.

Finally, Wikileaks' suggestions that civilian deaths were in effect tolerated and covered up goes to the heart of the counter-insurgency methods and messages that NATO have built over the last 18 months. Unless Afghan civilians across the country come to believe that a popular government can delivery security, national dignity and economic improvements to them individually and collectively, then support for the international presence will surely dwindle. Add in an apparently cavalier approach to ‘collateral damage’ resulting in the death, injury or permanent maiming of civilians resulting from legal attacks on legitimate targets – attacks on civilians are a war crime that should be prosecuted – and the siren call of the Taliban and other rebels becomes all the more compelling.

Did Wikileaks change the price of fish? Not for me. What it did do was to underscore the scale of the challenge NATO faces if it is to achieve its goals in Afghanistan over the next five to ten years.

Good luck, David Petraeus – you’ll need it.


anthonyinseattle said...

There is no public interest in what Wikileaks has done. Since Assange had to enlist 3 real newspapers to do the actual journalism for him, I suspect he really had no idea what they had on their hands, and in this regard Wikileaks is nothing but a gossip column. Although doubtless it has kept a team of analysts in Tehran busy dissecting it all for future war games, so at least it served someones purpose.

The problem is, complicated tapestries about Provincial Reconstruction progress and Pashtun tribal loyalties - things that DO change the price of fish (or should that be tea?) - don't make good copy for the Daily Mail. The vast majority of the public have no idea why we are in Afghanistan; they like simple battles between good and evil (Ian Fleming and JRR Tolkein have a lot to answer for), and all they know about the war is that people die there (BOO!) and it's horrifically expensive (BOO!). Breathless revelations about Pakistani double agents, sophisticated missile systems, and secret cover-ups - even if they have already been in the public domain for yonks - all sound like things that SPECTRE might do when they are sneaked out of the office on a thunb drive instead of buried in 20 pages of reasoned analysis in Foreign Affairs.

Other than at a tactical level, the revelations won't change much. But it's a sad reminder of the sort of news the voting public likes to read. And a reminder that secret informtion is easily stolen, and easily published under journalistic cover by parties that don't understand what they have in their hands.

Toby's Random Musings said...

Tony, hi

Thanks for this - yes, I agree. And add Pyongyang amongst others likely to be scrutinising this material.