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Leaking to Avert Disaster

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The outpouring of tens of thousands of classified military documents by WikiLeaks is not precisely comparable to the publication of the Pentagon Papers -- but in at least one crucial respect, it may be more valuable. While the Pentagon Papers revealed the duplicity of American policy-makers in the senseless Vietnam War, their release came too late to save many lives or change the course of that conflict. The WikiLeaks disclosures may have arrived in time to influence policy and prevent disaster.

It is true that the lightly classified memoranda and cables in the WikiLeaks trove contain very few facts unknown to anybody who has followed the course of the war. We know that the Afghan conflict is complex and difficult, with a corrupt government in Kabul; a war-fighting policy that seems to alienate civilians while endangering our troops; and a Pakistani ally whose behavior and motives often seem questionable. And we should know that the Barack Obama administration inherited this troubled and perhaps impossible situation from President George W. Bush, whose decision to invade Iraq within a year after striking back at the Taliban may have been catastrophic.

But however responsible Bush is for the creation of this quandary, it is now Obama's problem to solve. The usefulness of the WikiLeaks papers will lie in the debate they should inspire among political leaders and a public that neither supports the war nor demands withdrawal -- with essential facts that ought to be understood by everyone.

First, the documents display the inglorious chaos of counterinsurgency warfare, especially the assassination program targeting militant Taliban and al-Qaida leaders. While that program has achieved some valuable "kills," the specific accounts of civilian deaths, including small children, are deeply disturbing.

Although military leaders candidly remind us that civilian casualties are inevitable, the question raised here is whether the entire program is counterproductive. Or is it true, as advocates would claim, that using the drones and rockets actually reduces the collateral damage caused by more traditional methods of making war?

Second, it is critical to understand the price of this war in spent resources as well as lost lives. While the Bush administration squandered trillions of dollars in Iraq, without any perceptible benefit to American security, the price of our involvement in Afghanistan was slowly accruing, as well. Neglect of the war effort there over the past nine years has undoubtedly raised that price. How will the Obama administration -- and the war's supporters in the Republican Party, as well -- define the war's objectives so that its enormous human and fiscal cost will be justified?

Finally, the most important diplomatic aspect of the WikiLeaks documents is their confirmation of a story that has been published many times -- namely, the American suspicion that Pakistani military intelligence is connected with central elements of the Taliban. The Pakistanis routinely deny this accusation, as they have long done, and the White House says this is old news that has been superseded by improved relations.

But nobody believes that Pakistan's secret services have cut off the relationships with Afghan Islamist leaders that began during the war with the Soviet Union. Nor does anyone expect that they will, given the geopolitical realities of Pakistan's ongoing conflict with India.

The ultimate issue raised by the relationship between Islamabad and the insurgency, as well as the parallel relationship between the insurgency and the Kabul government, is a simple question. If the Pakistanis can advance their interests by maintaining communications with the Taliban, and if the Afghans believe that they can do likewise, then why is the United States alone unable to open such talks?

A central principle of counterinsurgency warfare is that most conflicts are settled by negotiation and reconciliation rather than victory -- and the WikiLeaks papers suggest that this complex and vexing war must be ended that way, too.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

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