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Wikileaks, telling us the obvious in Afghanistan

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The news in that massive data dump provided by the dauntingly mysterious Wikileaks (who? what?) to one American and two European publications is that there is no news at all. We already knew that the war in Afghanistan was not going well. We already knew -- or, in the words of the New York Times, "harbored strong suspicions" -- that Pakistan's military spy service was aiding the Taliban (with friends like this . . .) and we already knew that Afghanistan's army and police would be reformed and able to stand up to the Taliban some time around when pigs fly or Washington balances the budget. No need to wait by the phone.

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This leak has inevitably been compared to the Pentagon Papers, which were provided to the Times and, a bit later, The Post in 1971. That secret history of the Vietnam War really was a secret. Not only were the documents themselves so labeled, but they revealed information that had been withheld from the American people, including the stunning fact that Lyndon Johnson's administration was escalating the conflict while publicly pledging to "seek no wider war." Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, did more of the same -- expanding the war in an effort to bring North Vietnam to its knees and end the conflict. It managed to expand the war only to the streets of Washington.

Nothing in what Wikileaks provided approaches this sort of revelation of duplicity. It seems clear from the documents that the Taliban has used surface-to-air missiles, as the mujaheddin did against the Soviets, and while we previously did not know this, the missiles apparently have not yet materially affected the war. But even this revelation, as well as many of the others, comes from unverified ground reports and may turn out to have been produced by the renowned fog machine, usually present in combat. The Guardian, one of the newspapers favored by Wikileaks and a long-standing opponent of the war, cautioned that "some of the more lurid intelligence reports are of doubtful provenance."

Indeed, what would have been major news is if these documents supported any optimism. That would have been a stunning reversal of what is fast becoming conventional wisdom: The war in Afghanistan cannot be won as winning is now defined -- defeat of the Taliban, eradication of al-Qaeda and the preservation of a functioning central government run by someone like our close friend and cherished ally, Hamid Karzai. This is not going to happen.

In the July 26 Newsweek, Richard N. Haass, a former State Department official in both Bush presidencies and currently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, outlines several possible alternatives, including what would amount to conceding a hunk of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Interestingly, the piece -- written before Wikileaks did its leaking -- mentions the Taliban-Pakistan relationship, which, given Pakistan's preoccupation with India (adequately reciprocated, I must say) is the central concern of the region. Both nations are armed with nuclear weapons and ample amounts of enmity.

Along with the Wikileaks revelations, the most telling news story about Afghanistan also appeared in Monday's newspapers. It concerned the allegation that prisoners in a north Mexican jail were armed by officials and allowed out at night to commit murder. This, I emphasize, was Mexico, a Western nation, just across the Rio Grande, and yet we can hardly comprehend such levels of corruption -- or, it seems, do very much about it. Yet, on the other side of the world, in an Eastern nation, tribal in character and so very, very poor, we undertake to turn its constabulary into some spiffy and efficient force and do the same with the army. The Wikileaks documents say -- anecdotally but convincingly -- that this is not happening. Again, this is something we already knew -- anecdotally but convincingly.

The Obama administration will go through the motions of hunting down the leaker and denouncing the leaks, as it should. (Government is entitled to some secrets; it needs them to protect us.) But after taking a deep breath, it may conclude that Wikileaks has done it a favor -- speaking the unspeakable, and not in the allegedly forked tongue of the mainstream media but in the actual words of combat soldiers. This will make the inevitable decision easier. Barack Obama, an unemotional man, will wind down the war in Afghanistan -- not just because he wants to but because he has to. This, like the news from Wikileaks, is not news at all.

cohenr@washpost.com



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