A hacker-founded whistleblower website, WikiLeaks, has released close to 75,000 documents, from the battlefront in Afghanistan, which purportedly show the complicity of Pakistani spy agencies and the Taliban in waging a war against Western military forces. The site said it would soon be releasing another 15,000 documents.
In a development that could well rock the United States-Pakistan relationship or have far-reaching consequences for the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, the WikiLeaks release was said to show that Pakistan had permitted agents of intelligence services to hold secret planning sessions with the Taliban, aimed at agreeing a military strategy against American and other forces in the country. Unconfirmed reports also said that evidence of war crimes and a higher-than-expected civilian casualty rate could be found in the reports.
The White House reacted strongly within hours of the release. National Security Advisor General James Jones said in a statement that the U.S. "strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organisations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security".
He especially criticised WikiLeaks for making "no effort to contact us about these documents", complaining that the U.S. government had learned of the release from news organisations. General Jones was also quick to reassure that such "irresponsible" leaks would not impact the U.S.' ongoing commitment to deepen its partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan, to defeat common enemies and to support the aspirations of the Afghan and Pakistani people.
Speaking to The Hindu, Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former officer at the Central Intelligence Agency, said, "The documents underscore what we have known for years — Pakistan has an intimate relationship with the Taliban. The former head of Afghan intelligence has been saying this for the last month. The Obama administration has understood this from its first days in office." He added that the White House did understand there was no viable alternative to a policy of engagement with Pakistan to try to "coerce and entice Islamabad to cut those ties".
Shift in Af-Pak region
General Jones appeared to corroborate this view, noting that there had been a shift in the Af-Pak region under President Obama which entailed a "substantial increase in resources for Afghanistan, and increased focus on al-Qaeda and Taliban safe-havens in Pakistan, precisely because of the grave situation that had developed over several years". He further said that while there were still "serious challenges" ahead, the U.S. was focused on breaking the Taliban’s momentum and building Afghan capacity so that the Afghan government could begin to assume responsibility for its future.
Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation think tank and formerly with the State Department’s South Asia Bureau, told The Hindu that some of the challenges the documents pointed to, such as high Afghan civilian casualties, had been rectified in the new counterinsurgency strategy first introduced in August 2009 by General Stanley McChrystal.
She said, "The WikiLeaks expose should not be used to argue that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is doomed to failure... [It was] refined over the last year and... the new counterinsurgency strategy is sound and should be given time to succeed."
Ms. Curtis added, however, that the leaked documents revealed "a level of U.S. frustration with Pakistan's dual policy of fighting some extremists while harbouring others", a view that was not always apparent in official statements praising Pakistan as a steadfast ally in the war on terrorism.
She further noted that given the continuing challenges posed by Pakistan's ambiguous policy toward terrorism in the region, the Obama administration ought to consider carefully whether its current Pakistan policy should be recalibrated in ways that convince the Pakistanis to shift their strategy toward the Taliban more fundamentally.
In a similar vein, addressing those in Pakistan who might have worried about the impact of the leak, General Jones added that especially given the country’s willingness to work with the U.S. since 2009, "counter-terrorism cooperation has led to significant blows against al-Qaeda’s leadership... [and] the Pakistani military has gone on the offensive in Swat and South Waziristan, at great cost to the Pakistani military and people".
However, in what might have been a tacit acknowledgement of the veracity of some of the reports leaked, General Jones cautioned: "Yet the Pakistani government — and Pakistan’s military and intelligence services — must continue their strategic shift against insurgent groups."
Linking actions to annual aid
Implicitly linking such actions to the $1.5 billion annual aid that the U.S. is currently providing Pakistan, the General also said, "The balance must shift decisively against al-Qaeda and its extremist allies. U.S. support for Pakistan will continue to be focused on building Pakistani capacity to root out violent extremist groups, while supporting the aspirations of the Pakistani people."
According to the New York Times, which was said to be in possession of the documents a week ago, much of the information released by WikiLeaks could not be verified and likely comes from sources aligned with Afghan intelligence, which considers Pakistan an enemy, and paid informants.
The newspaper added that however, "many of the reports rely on sources that the military rated as reliable" and current and former American officials interviewed, said the portrait of the Pakistani spy agency’s collaboration with the Afghan insurgency was broadly consistent with other classified intelligence.
The report came close on the heels of a decision by the U.S. Treasury to impose sanctions against three key leaders and financiers for the Haqqani Network and the Taliban, for supporting acts of terrorism linked to the militant groups based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States Department of the Treasury announced this week.
In targeting the three individuals, the Treasury noted last week that the Haqqani Network was a Taliban-affiliated group of militants operating out of North Waziristan Agency, and that "Pakistan has been spearheading insurgent activity in Afghanistan".