Monday, July 26, 2010

Seems Like Old Times

To those of us who are over fifty and who paid attention to the news nearly forty years ago, we know what the term “Pentagon Papers” means. It was a massive leak of secret documents about the Vietnam War in June 1971 that revealed how America was led into the war and how it was being executed, including how disconnected from reality were the rosy scenarios of winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people and the strength of the Vietcong. The story was also about the Nixon administration’s furious effort to try to contain the damage of the leaks by taking the newspapers — The New York Times and the Washington Post — to court to try to stop them from printing the articles. The government lost at the Supreme Court; prior restraint by legal means was ruled to be unconstitutional, and besides, the revelations did not tell us much that we did not already know: the war in Vietnam was poorly thought out, badly executed, we trusted an unworthy and weak ally in a South Vietnamese government riddled with corruption and criminals, and the lesson of the war was that interfering in a civil war in a small country at the cost of over 50,000 American lives and countless numbers of civilian losses in Vietnam was a horrific waste that left wounds that still linger today.

And that is why reading The War Logs, a series of stories about the war in Afghanistan based on thousands of pages of leaked documents by WikiLeaks, has such an eerily familiar ring to them. We have heard all of this before: the strength and the depth of infiltration of the enemy into neighboring countries, the weakness and corruption of the government we’re supposed to be helping, the neighboring countries that harbor the insurgents, the poor planning and assumptions behind our effort, the terrible loss of civilian life, and the brutal fact that this war, like the one that ended thirty-five years ago, is unwinnable at the hands of a foreign army that has been sent in to ostensibly avenge an attack but is essentially trying to build a nation in its own image.

Americans fighting the war in Afghanistan have long harbored strong suspicions that Pakistan’s military spy service has guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington for its help combating the militants, according to a trove of secret military field reports made public Sunday.

The documents, made available by an organization called WikiLeaks, suggest that Pakistan, an ostensible ally of the United States, allows representatives of its spy service to meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders.

Taken together, the reports indicate that American soldiers on the ground are inundated with accounts of a network of Pakistani assets and collaborators that runs from the Pakistani tribal belt along the Afghan border, through southern Afghanistan, and all the way to the capital, Kabul.

Much of the information — raw intelligence and threat assessments gathered from the field in Afghanistan— cannot be verified and likely comes from sources aligned with Afghan intelligence, which considers Pakistan an enemy, and paid informants. Some describe plots for attacks that do not appear to have taken place.

But many of the reports rely on sources that the military rated as reliable.

While current and former American officials interviewed could not corroborate individual reports, they said that the portrait of the spy agency’s collaboration with the Afghan insurgency was broadly consistent with other classified intelligence.

The publication of these papers has already brought a reaction from the White House, condemning the leaks as damaging to the war effort and, at the same, dismissing them as inconsequential. That’s not quite the way the Nixon White House reacted in 1971 — they went after the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, by trying to bug his psychiatrist’s office — but still using the condemnation as a distraction from what the leaks reveal: the war is not going as well as they would like us to believe.

This is the news story that will now dominate the airwaves and the blogosphere for the rest of the week, perhaps longer. Although it is unflattering to the military, to the Obama administration, and it will cause a great deal of tumult in places where liberals championed the release of the Pentagon Papers only now to have the shoe on the other foot and a Democrat is in the White House, the inescapable conclusion is that once again we are neck-deep in a place where history has long taught us the exit is far more costly than the entrance.