The Afghan War Leaks: Few Surprises, but Some Hard Truths

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U.S. soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Troop, of 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry, patrol in the Dand district of Kandahar province in Afghanistan on July 26, 2010

Hamid Gul is every inch the epitome of a retired Pakistani general. He is a gracious host, inviting foreign government officials, analysts and journalists into his home, located in the military cantonment of Rawalpindi. He presides over a silver tea service, offering cups of Chinese green tea he picked up on his travels, while waxing lyrical on his role in defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Taking pride of place on the mantel of his elegantly appointed salon is a piece of the Berlin Wall, presented by the West German government with an engraved plaque: "With deepest respect to Lieut. General Hamid Gul, who helped deliver the first blow." It's about the same size as the chip on his shoulder. From 1987 to 1989, Gul, director general of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency, oversaw the funding, training and equipping of the Afghan mujahedin that helped turn the tide in the anti-Soviet war. For at least a decade he was considered a hero, feted not only in Pakistan but also around the world. These days, he is more likely to be dubbed a villain, particularly in the recently leaked U.S. intelligence documents linking Pakistan's ISI with the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Gul, who could not be reached for comment following the publication of the leaks, figures largely in several alleged plots, including planned attacks against the Afghan government and U.S. forces. He is accused of working in cahoots with al-Qaeda and cavorting with unidentified "Arabs" and is implicated in fomenting an insurgency across the border with Afghanistan. Of course, he is not alone — the leaked documents, some 90,000 in all, carry the general assumption that Pakistan's intelligence agencies have had a hand in the Taliban insurgency since Day One. This will not come as a surprise to anyone on either side of the border; U.S. government officials have already admitted as much. Gul, however, is such a highly visible character, and so deeply entrenched in the mind-sets of both Pakistanis and Afghans for his role in the anti-Soviet jihad, that he has more likely become a symbol of involvement than an active hand. As Osama bin Laden is reflexively blamed for terrorist attacks anywhere in the world, so Gul has become the face of Pakistan's clandestine activities in Afghanistan.

The leaked data are raw, unfiltered and unqualified. Taken as a whole, they are about as useful as Googling "ISI aids Afghanistan insurgency." That is to say, there might be some quality nuggets of new information buried in the usual morass of false leads, biased reporting and pure inaccuracy, but there is still no smoking gun. Journalists, and by extension spymasters, working in the region have learned from experience that sensational scoops with definitive proof are liable to fall apart with the first breeze of investigation. Sources lie, exaggerate, get confused and generally shrug off evidence that directly contravenes their assertions. When information is rewarded monetarily, the temptation to sell what the buyer is looking for is all the higher. Many pieces of Wikileak's data dump certainly fall into that category. That said, there are certainly some truths to be found.

There is no doubt that Pakistan has a vested interest in seeing things go its way in Afghanistan. And there is no doubt that the country's military has gone so far as to try to influence certain groups to do its bidding there. The 2008 coordinated suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul is a case in point. Pakistan sees India as a direct threat to its interests in Afghanistan. Long before the Wikileaks leak, Afghan and U.S. intelligence officials were able to offer clear evidence of ISI links to the militant groups that carried out the attack, which killed 58, wounded more than 140 and destroyed a large swath of downtown Kabul.

But what is missing from the leaked documents is context. What exactly does Pakistan's ISI hope to achieve in Afghanistan? For years, the short answer has been "strategic depth," Pakistan's longtime policy of maintaining a security buffer should archrival India attack. During the 1990s, when Pakistan maintained training camps in Afghanistan for jihadis heading for the contested territory of Kashmir, it made sense for the intelligence agencies to cement ties with the Afghan leadership. The ISI, with help from extremist mullahs and madrasah leaders (fundamental to its campaign to foment an anti-Soviet resistance based on Islamic jihad), was instrumental in helping the Taliban gain a foothold. But does the ISI, and by extension the Pakistani military that is the de facto leadership of the country, really want to see a return of Taliban rule to Kabul?

There is a certain cadre of military officers who might say yes. These are the officers who launched their military careers under the fundamentalist military dictator Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who declared Islam the ideal weapon against the Soviets. Professionally, they came of age in an era when U.S.-Pakistan relations soured over Pakistan's development of a nuclear bomb. Thus they were never able to benefit from the customary practice of military officer exchange programs, which have historically gone a long way toward building better working relationships with the U.S. Instead they grew suspicious and resentful of American power. They are now just one or two rungs below the top military levels. According to some U.S. military officials, Pakistan's General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is in the process of strategic surgery: excising the most radical elements of that cadre without causing disruptions in the rest of the corps and risking an internal coup.

Hamid Gul is not necessarily in that group. But like many other ISI officials who were instrumental in training and equipping the mujahedin and later the Taliban, he has become a Taliban apologist, repeatedly asserting to TIME over the years that the Taliban were not nearly as bad as they were made out to be by the Western media. According to Pakistani Senator Tariq Azim, Pakistan experienced total peace when the Taliban were last running Afghanistan. "Now that we are supporting the United States, they are against us," he recently told TIME. "If they go back to status quo ante, if they are back in the saddle, I think things will ease."

But bringing the Taliban back to power, whether through clandestine support of the insurgency or through open offers to host negotiations between the Afghan government and insurgent leaders, stands to have serious repercussions for Pakistan that few acknowledge. Pakistani power brokers tend to look at the Taliban through a colonial lens. Afghanistan in the Pakistani imagination remains a backward country steeped in tribal traditions, one that could never truly flourish under a modern democracy. Many Pakistanis see the Taliban as a genuine resistance movement based on Pashtun nationalism; what they don't realize is that the Taliban has evolved in the years since it last ruled Afghanistan.

The Taliban don't necessarily recognize international borders. Instead, they wish to establish an Islamic caliphate across the region. Pakistan, which has more ethnic Pashtuns on its side of the border than are in Afghanistan, would be the next step. Lieut. General Asad Durrani, another former director of military intelligence and of the ISI, says working with insurgent groups may bring short-term gains, but in the long term it can easily backfire. "As a principal, you have to be very careful operating with a radical," he told TIME last fall. "My experience has been that you give them a little bit, they want more. You give them more, and they want more than that. You can't satisfy them." Already the indigenous Pakistani Taliban movement, which takes its cues from the Afghan movement of the same name, has proved an intractable enemy for the Pakistani military. How much worse would it be if the Taliban were triumphant next door?