Americans have known for some time that the war in Afghanistan was not going well, and many have suspected that the situation there was much worse than the administration has been willing to publicly acknowledge. But the unauthorized release this week of some 90,000 classified military documents by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks — and their publication in The New York Times and two European newspapers — offers, for the first time, an excruciatingly detailed view of the difficulties the U.S. is facing against a formidable and determined adversary that is stronger today than at any time since the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban.
The documents, which span parts of two administrations and six years between January 2004 and December 2009, paint a picture of an American-led force often starved of resources, equipment and manpower, an ineffective Afghan central government riddled by corruption, and abuses by Afghan police and security forces that routinely violate the rights of citizens and alienate the people they are supposed to protect.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, the disclosures cast a stark light on the suspicions of ground-level soldiers and commanders that intelligence operatives in Pakistan — nominally our most important regional ally and the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. military and civilian aid over the last decade — have been secretly colluding with the enemy to plan and carry out attacks against American forces. Reports of high-level meetings between Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence and Taliban leaders raise the troubling possibility that the U.S. is being betrayed by the very people it has relied on most to prosecute the war.
Shocking as they may be, none of the revelations from the formerly secret archive is unprecedented. Though U.S. officials generally have sought to portray the conflict in upbeat terms, allegations of rampant corruption in the government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and the questionable ability of the Afghan national army and police to maintain security without massive American assistance, have long been matters of concern. Similarly, American officials repeatedly have found themselves obliged to paper over differences with Pakistan over that country's long-standing ties to its proxies among the Afghan insurgent movement.
What's new about the material released this week is the granular detail of the reporting, which includes not only broad narratives relating to such topics as civilian reconstruction projects and aid distribution but also gripping, minute-by-minute dispatches from troops in the field. For example, several eyewitness accounts describe Taliban fighters using shoulder-fired missiles to shoot down American helicopters, a capability that administration officials previously denied the insurgents had.
All this material comes in the wake of a report last week by The Washington Post that the U.S. intelligence community has grown exponentially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 but that the problems of duplication of effort and lack of information-sharing that failed to prevent tragedy then have only grown worse in the intervening years.
Ret. Air Force Gen. James Clapper, President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next director of national intelligence, pledged last week to better coordinate the 16 major civilian and military intelligence agencies tasked with safeguarding the nation against terrorists. But Congress has never given his office the political or budgetary authority needed to get the job done.
The best thing that could come out of this week's revelations would be another spur to lawmakers to rectify that situation and to focus on the long-term implications of America's flagging war effort in Afghanistan and whether we can continue to rely on our ostensible allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's easy to blame WikiLeaks as the messenger bearing bad news, but until we can tell our friends apart from our enemies in the region, the likelihood is that there will only be more of the same.