In the Arena

The Wikileaks Tet Offensive

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In early 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army launched a major offensive across South Vietnam. The U.S. embassy in Saigon was breached. The imperial capital of Hue was overrun. Eventually, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces defeated the attacks–in military terms, the Tet Offensive was a rout. But the military terms hardly mattered: Tet demonstrated the long-term futility of the U.S. mission in Vietnam. Walter Cronkite, the most respected newscaster in America, turned against the war. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for another term; the Democratic Party shattered. Several years later, the New York Times–and several other newspapers–published a comprehensive secret history of the war compiled by the Department of Defense. The so-called Pentagon Papers were devastating. They proved that the U.S. government had lied repeatedly to the American people about the war; indeed, the government had fabricated one of the incidents in the Tonkin Gulf that led directly to the deployment of U.S. troops in large numbers on the ground.

The Wikileaks intelligence dump–more than 90,000 secret intelligence documents detailing the frustrations of the war in Afghanistan–has elements of both the Tet Offensive and the Pentagon Papers. But it seems more like Tet to me: the overall impact of this event is likely to make clear to a public, which has not been paying much attention, how futile the situation in Afghanistan is–and how utterly duplicitous our Pakistani “ally” has been.

The broad outline of the story is well known.  The Taliban was, in large part, a creation of the Pakistani intelligence services. The purpose was to prevent India from gaining control over Afghanistan. This relationship became an embarrassment after the Taliban took over the Afghan government in the late 1990s and instituted a draconian form of Islamic rule–and then offered a safe haven to the Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorists. It became a dangerous embarrassment after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Pakistanis were offered a choice by George W. Bush: with us or against us. The Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf chose, ostensibly, to be with us. Covertly, however, the Pakistani support for various Taliban elements continued. After the Taliban were overthrown, their leadership found a home in the western Pakistani city of Quetta. The Haqqani madrasa–an especially fierce branch of the Taliban, responsible for operations which resulted in the deaths of many Americans–had its headquarters operating openly within a mile of the Pakistani Army’s 10th division in North Waziristan. Osama Bin Laden and his circle relocated in Pakistan as well.

The Bush Administration chose to do nothing about all this; its focus was on Iraq. Worse than nothing: an open spigot of military aid was made available to the Musharraf government, most of which was directed against Pakistan’s perceived threat–the border with India. The story changed a bit when Barack Obama became President. With the focus back on Afghanistan, the Obama Administration began to pressure the Pakistanis about their ties to the Taliban. At the same time, a Pakistani branch of the Taliban began terrorist operations against the post-Musharraf government of Asif Ali Zardari. A Taliban force overran the Swat district, an area 90 miles from the capital of Islamabad that had been a favored site for the vacation villas of the Pakistani elite.

The situation seemed to change over the past 18 months. The Pakistani army reacted to the Pakistani Taliban threat. The extremists were cleared from Swat and South Waziristan. Pakistani intelligence helped target some of the drone attacks launched against Al Qaeda and Pakistani targets. But there were no drones directed against the Afghan Taliban leadership congregated in Quetta. And the Haqqani madrasa continued to operate openly a mile away from the 10th Pakistani division.

In recent months, negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have opened the possibility of a peace deal–with the Haqqani network standing down in return for some sort of power-sharing agreement between the Karzai government and the Taliban in the Pashtun lands on the Pakistani border. This is a very controversial proposition within the Karzai government; most of the military and intelligence apparatus is non-Pashtun and terrified of a Taliban return. It seems entirely possible that the Wikileaks trove emanated from Afghan intelligence sources trying to quash a deal–although the overall effect of this leak could be exactly what the Afghan intelligence service doesn’t want. (add: it’s also possible as Michael Scherer points out above that a U.S. intelligence analyst may have been responsible for the leak.)

A successful outcome in Afghanistan always was dependent on two local factors, no matter how brilliantly the U.S. military performed: an honest, competent Afghan government and a true ally in Pakistan, which ceased its support for the Afghan Taliban elements operating from Pakistani soil. In the past year, we’ve learned that an honest, competent Afghan government is a fantasy. The Wikileaks gusher will now direct attention to the Pakistani side of the equation–and increase the public sense that the Afghan war is an exercise in futility. It remains to be seen whether the Obama Administration can wait until December, as planned, to reevaluate its Afghan strategy.