The 92,000 classified U.S. government documents leaked to WikiLeaks.org didn’t reveal many new shocking truths about the U.S. military quagmire in Afghanistan. The facts on the ground have been well known publicly for some time—that the Taliban adversary is getting stronger and is being actively assisted by a faux ally (Pakistan) to whom the United States is shoveling billions, the Afghan government is corrupt, and the U.S. has killed civilians.
The Obama administration is trying to spin its way out of this significant public relations problem by saying that the period of the documents, from 2004 until December 2009, was mostly during the Bush administration and before a surge and a move to a counterinsurgency strategy by the incoming administration. However, only one of the outcomes the documents mentioned has since changed—the United States has tried to reduce the number of civilian casualties to attempt to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.
Yet, the war is still in a dismal state, and, after almost nine years of U.S. occupation, even reducing civilian casualties will not likely make the United States more popular in Afghanistan. One of the principal problems with counterinsurgency warfare—and one of the main reasons why guerrilla tactics are the most successful form of war in human history—is that local populations rarely give foreign occupiers, even relatively benevolent ones, the benefit of the doubt. (Remember that British forces in the American colonies—whom the British government allowed to be tried in a colonial court for defending themselves against attack by a colonial mob during the “Boston Massacre”—were still deeply hated.)
Furthermore, in Afghanistan, the United States is less likely to be able to turn significant portions of a more zealous opposition, as it did in Iraq, by paying part of it to switch sides. (In Iraq, this gambit was not a bad short-term strategy to reduce the violence, but it hasn’t solved the long-term problem of large-scale carnage returning because of the deep ethno-sectarian rivalries within that country; a similar long-term dynamic could afflict the ethnically diverse Afghanistan.)
Although most of the Taliban may not be won over with money, they might be enticed into a settlement that would allow them to rule their Pashtun homeland in southern Afghanistan. To obtain this outcome, the United States would have to give up its attempt to strengthen the historically weak Afghan central government, allow the resumption of more traditional decentralized governance, and totally withdraw its forces from the country.
But wouldn’t this allow the Taliban to again shelter Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda? That would assume that bin Laden would take the risky action of moving from his perfectly safe haven in Pakistan to a new home in southern Afghanistan. Such movement would risk being killed or captured when coming out of the woodwork. It would also assume that the Taliban—which has only the goal of regaining local power rather than waging a global jihad—has not learned the danger of harboring bin Laden and al-Qaeda. In Taliban-run areas of Afghanistan, little evidence exists that the group is sheltering al-Qaeda. Even if the Taliban didn’t learn from its ouster after 9/11 and did harbor al-Qaeda again in a post-U.S. Afghanistan, the United States has many local and regional allies that would help the U.S. in containing the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Other Afghan groups that rival the Taliban—for example, the Uzbeks and Tajiks—are stronger now than a decade ago and have incentives to keep the Taliban in check. Finally, regional powers, such as India, Iran, and the Central Asian states, have an interest to assist such local groups and take their own actions to limit Taliban and al-Qaeda activities and inroads in the region.
Even if all of these local and regional actors fail to contain the Taliban’s future support of al-Qaeda, the United States, since 9/11, has perfected the use of missile-firing drones. They can be used to remotely target al-Qaeda’s hideouts, sanctuaries, and training camps—just as they are being used effectively now against such al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.
So the only thing the WikiLeaks documents reveal is how persistent the post-9/11 war and nation-building fever continues to be among the foreign policy elite—even in the face of the dismal results on the ground for almost a decade and a majority opinion in America that the war is not worth fighting.
Having a volunteer army rather than a conscript one lowers the cost of the war for the America public at home, and has thus given U.S. policy makers a little more time to whistle nervously in the graveyard of empires. But by increasing domestic political pressure against the war, the WikiLeaks documents may be shortening the inevitable march to judgment day.