The extraordinary raw intelligence leaks from the Afghan battlefield confirmed what many people already believed, or feared, about the war. But amidst the avalanche of documents, several new facts have emerged. We now know, for example, that civilians are being killed in much larger numbers than officially admitted by Nato. We know that the Taleban has acquired surface-to-air missiles which downed Western helicopters. We know that both Iran and Pakistan are deeply involved in the conflict, working closely with the Taleban. Finally, we know that the Taleban’s deployment of new weapons, tactics and especially landmines has been devastating to Western and Afghan forces — but, above all, to civilians.
What makes these leaks so damaging is that they have come at exactly the wrong time for everyone concerned. The US is desperately seeking a timetable for a withdrawal from Afghanistan and has enlisted both the Afghan and Pakistani governments to help it do so. Barack Obama is preparing for midterm elections: the last thing he needs is a crisis with his allies on account of the allegations made in these documents. It is deeply embarrassing not only that the source of the leaks is a US soldier, but that the leaks so decisively reveal US officers on the ground openly criticising both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI.
A few months ago Hamid Karzai would have been thrilled to have confirmation that American officers are speaking openly about how divisions of Pakistani intelligence are helping the Taleban. But after spending eight years criticising the ISI, he recently decided to cosy up to them. This change is crucial to understanding what is really happening in Afghanistan.
Karzai seems to have given up on the ability of the Americans, the Brits and Nato either to defeat the Taleban or even to talk to them. This is why he has turned to Pakistan and Iran: his own freelance attempt to try to broker a ceasefire with the Taleban which would involve a power-sharing deal. However, Karzai’s opponents in Kabul (including former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, sacked two months ago for being too anti-ISI), who accuse him of selling out to Pakistan, will jump on these leaks to show they were right all along.
These leaks are highly embarrassing for Pakistan’s President, Asif Zardari, who has just cravenly given in to the army and awarded a three-year extension to its chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. He ran the ISI between late 2004 and 2007 and had been director of its military operations before that. Both jobs involved helping and sustaining the Taleban in exile in Pakistan, and facilitating their revival in 2004-05. It was Kiyani who formulated the policy that is criticised in the leaks: giving the Taleban sanctuary and support. The last thing Zardari wants is a forced confrontation with the army over these leaks.
Kiyani is now the most powerful man in Pakistan and will remain army chief until 2013. His aim is for the Americans, the Brits and the Afghans to open talks with Taleban leaders — who are all in Pakistan and over whom the ISI has a great deal of influence and control. In return, Kiyani wants to make sure that the ISI brokers any such talks — and is able to advance its own national security interests. At the top if its wish list is securing a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul, and ending what he regards as too much Indian influence in Afghanistan. This is why the leaked emails come at a bad time for Kiyani: the last thing he needs right now is any embarrassment about his role, or that of the ISI, in the past.
One overlooked point is the amount of embarrassment these leaks will cause in Tehran. Some documents claim that the Iranians helped to train, fund and arm the Taleban. Various field notes cite movements back and forth across the Iran-Afghan border, and smuggling foreign fighters through its borders. Ordinary Iranians will be asking of their unloved regime what on earth are they doing funding Taleban groups who are Sunni Muslims, anti-Iran and are usually allied to Pakistan. The answer, of course, is that anyone who kills Americans these days is deemed a friend of Iran. But that will not be sufficient an explanation for many Iranians.
So these leaks now endanger all the objectives of all the major players — especially in America. Even as Obama grapples with putting together a withdrawal plan from Afghanistan, he will now face even greater criticism from Congress and the Republicans for being so generous with Karzai and Kiyani — given that they both seem to be playing a double game. The mess in Afghanistan has just got messier.
Ahmed Rashid is a Lahore-based journalist and analyst. His book on the war, Descent Into Chaos, is published by Allen Lane.