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Perspective

A leaking war

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WAR IN THE TIME OF LEAKS: American troops will stay for now in Afghanistan, with the House of Representatives rejecting a resolution directing the president to order a pullout

Sultan Amir Tarar, aka 'Colonel Imam', is a retired brigadier-general in Pakistan's ISI. A self-confessed trainer and Taliban supporter, he apparently oversaw the first Taliban takeover of Herat in 1995, and is reputed to have trained the formidable Mullah Omar. Since 9/11, he has been an outspoken advocate of the Taliban. He was believed to have been captured in April 2010 by a splinter group of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (earlier supported by the ISI, but now a big part of what is known as the Punjabi Taliban). On Tuesday, Col Imam released a video in which he threatened to reveal the weaknesses of the Pakistan government if they did not secure his release by freeing a clutch of LEJ terrorists from Pakistani jails.

Whether we have a Pakistan version of WikiLeaks in the making is secondary. What is of greater importance is the tangled web of Pakistan government assistance to the Taliban and associated terror groups, their apparent blowback inside Pakistan and the future of Afghanistan and the US-led war in there. And why, despite WikiLeaks, nothing will change.

The 92, 000 US military documents made public by WikiLeaks, a whistle-blowing organisation, early this week were intriguing. They detailed the grim reality of the war: the hunt to kill insurgent leaders, the death of Afghan civilians, the unreliability of Afghan forces, the corruption of political leaders and Pakistan's perfidy. One "knew this all along", but somehow the proof in black and white still robbed you of your breath.

For the US, though, the leaks are not going to change policy on the ground in Afghanistan. This became clear when US president Barack Obama got Congress to clear a $59 billion war funding bill, a couple of days after the WikiLeaks expose. It may not be a "blank cheque", but the cheque is nonetheless substantial. Moreover, experts point out that the revelations contain few surprises. Says terrorism analyst Bill Roggio, "The documents really do not shed any new light on the situation there, and I do not perceive the public to be upset enough to pressure the government over Pakistan's complicity in the Afghan war. "

The US has been careful not to openly criticise Pakistan or its army chief Ashfaq Kayani (who was DG ISI during much of the time in question and, therefore, responsible for running the Taliban), because ultimately, the US needs Pakistan. It needs Pakistan's cooperation to target Taliban/al-Qaida operatives and leaders in northwestern Pakistan;it needs to keep Pakistan stable;it needs Kayani on their side so he can go after some parts of the Taliban;most important, it needs him to ensure their supplies travel from Karachi to Khyber without being torched or attacked.

Despite the importance of Kayani, who got a three-year extension, there is a subtle shift in the US stance. It sent a strong signal when it banned some of Pakistan's favourite terrorists in the Haqqani network. Politically, the pressure on Pakistan is only likely to intensify. Hillary Clinton fired off on the Pakistan government knowing where Osama bin Laden was. But a stronger message was sent via British prime minister David Cameron. "I choose my words very carefully. It is unacceptable for anything to happen within Pakistan that is about supporting terrorism elsewhere. It is well-documented that that has been the case in the past, and we have to make sure that the Pakistan authorities are not looking two ways, " he told BBC Today. These remarks were promptly endorsed by the US State Department, which means the UK and US may be reading from the same sheet of music.

But that's pressure Pakistan has been able to withstand all these years. Certainly, under Kayani, there has been greater clarity that Pakistan would pursue its own interests regardless of what Washington thought of them. Ultimately, Pakistan wants to bring together all the Taliban/Islamist groups to form part of the power structure in Kabul.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, this goal is going to become more and more difficult to achieve, particularly as the Taliban groups - like the Afghan, Pakistani and Punjabi Taliban as well as non-Taliban groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba - slip in and out of each other's lives. That's how a group like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a creation of the Pakistan establishment, appears to have gone over to the dark side. The Haqqanis are close to the Pakistan army, but not so all the other Taliban groups. Pakistan's balancing act will become more and more difficult as these groups make common cause in their dislike for the Pakistani establishment and as a new generation of Taliban leaders take over the reins, one with more tenuous links with the Pak army.

Antonio Guistozzi at The Century Foundation, who has written perhaps the most authoritative study in recent times, 'Negotiating with the Taliban', puts it clearly. "The Pakistani army clearly sees the Taliban as a useful tool for its geopolitical ambitions in Afghanistan, but among the Taliban, the Pakistani patron is far from popular. Apart from Haqqani and his network (always the closest to the Pakistanis), the other networks tolerate Pakistani influence rather than appreciate it. To some extent, the distinction between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban is arbitrary. "

Despite this, Pakistan will continue to play the Taliban and the US, because its ultimate enemy is India, and it needs to secure itself with US aid against what it believes is a rampaging India. To the extent that the US negotiates for an honourable exit from Afghanistan, the Americans will continue to play this game, intermittently letting their anger get the better of them.

George Friedman of Stratfor, a global intelligence company, puts it in a geopolitical context. The Taliban know they are not being defeated on home turf. Pakistan knows the US is leaving but will continue to need the US as their security against India. And the US will support Pakistan because it doesn't want to have India as the sole regional power here. "Since the US wants neither an India outside a balance of power nor China taking the role of Pakistan's patron, it follows that the risk the US will bear grudges is small. And given that, the Pakistanis can live with Washington knowing that one Pakistani hand is helping the Americans while another helps the Taliban. "

The churn on Afghan policy in the wake of WikiLeaks converges with a growing assessment among experts that the US is prosecuting affairs wrongly in Afghanistan.

In the past few years, Guistozzi points out, the Taliban have been extending their governance outreach in the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan, where they are in control. On the other hand, between the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan government, the record has been dismal because they're spending more time securing themselves. In fact, many have suggested that the international community work harder to secure the northern and western areas of Afghanistan, which still has a relatively thinner Taliban presence.

Last week, this idea was sharply articulated by Robert Blackwill, former US ambassador to India and deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration. "Washington should move to ensure that north and west Afghanistan do not fall too, using, for many years to come, US air power and special forces - some 40, 000-50, 000 troops along with the Afghan army and the help of like-minded nations. Such a de facto partition would be a profoundly disappointing outcome to America's 10 years in Afghanistan. But, regrettably, it is now the best that can realistically and responsibly be achieved. " This would be a de-facto partitioning of Afghanistan, enabling the US and the international community to arm and fund the erstwhile Northern Alliance or the non-Taliban Pashtuns (if any).

Pakistan won't like it, because it could spawn the cancer of Pashtunistan again. But the idea has gathered resonance among many Afghan watchers, though there is no sign the Obama administration is anywhere close to that yet. Even if it isn't, it's a good way of ensuring greater Pakistani cooperation for the US project in Afghanistan.

But helping the non-Taliban forces in Afghanistan in the wake of a US withdrawal is exactly what countries like India, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia plan on doing. India will not countenance an extremist Sunni configuration in Kabul. Iran, though it has been funding some Taliban groups in the past couple of years, is equally clear that a Sunni dispensation in Kabul is against its interests as is Russia - a conclusion sharpened after the recent terror attacks in Moscow. China will continue to play the Pakistan card, so despite extremist threats to its Xinjiang province, China is not likely to get into the act here.

The WikiLeaks revelations are not about to change the course or direction of the war. The foreseeable future will depend on how the coming Kandahar offensive by General Petraeus plays out, not by whistleblowers. The damning truth is less the documents than the fact that most of this was known and the war continues to be lost. That's the reality laid bare by WikiLeaks.

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