But the major take-away from what some are calling the largest single leak in US government history is to simply confirm a mundane reality: The Taliban are stronger than ever and a crucial component of their success is the support they receive from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The military spy agency nurtured the Taliban in the 1990s and has maintained ties to the group ever since, notwithstanding billions of dollars in recent US aid to Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, this is not exactly news. It is a fact US diplomats are grappling with in Kabul, Afghan citizens are debating in the bazaars of Kandahar, and foreign troops are acutely aware of on NATO outposts in Helmand Province, where June marked the deadliest month for foreign troops.
The Afghan government’s view has long been that ending Pakistani support for the Taliban is the key to ending the war. US officers and diplomats, generally speaking off the record, concur that elements within Pakistan’s military establishment have been providing safe-haven to the Taliban inside their country – and some training, though they tend to be more coy about how high the contacts go.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai immediately responded to the Wikileaks reports by calling for the US to do more to address the support of Pakistan for the Taliban, who are largely drawn from the Pashtun ethnic group that straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.
“The recent documents leaked out to the media clearly support and verify ... that success over terrorism does not come with fighting in Afghan villages, but by targeting its sanctuaries and financial and ideological sources across the borders," President Karzai said in a statement. "Our efforts against terrorism will have no effect as long as these sanctuaries and sources remain intact."
How the Taliban can serve Pakistan's interests
The senior Taliban leadership, including their head Mullah Omar, are believed to live near the Pakistani city of Quetta. American officials say privately that Pakistan has the ability to arrest him, if it chooses to do so. It’s no coincidence that the Taliban leadership council is known as the Quetta Shura.
Pakistan is both interested in having an Islamist-tinged government in Kabul that will be more inclined to a Pakistani sphere of influence and more hostile to their old enemy India. It also wants a compliant regime to ensure its control of its own Pasthun-dominated border areas, which it fears could someday break away to join Afghanistan or become independent.
Since Pakistan gave so much support to the Taliban in the 1990s – eventually allowing the group to take control of most of Afghanistan – the anti-Taliban forces that the US installed in power after the 2001 invasion are not inclined to trust the Pakistani government.
That extends from ethnic Pashtuns like Mr. Karzai to, perhaps more strongly, the country’s Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks, who have themselves opposed the Karzai regime's outreach efforts to the Taliban. A common view among the ethnic minorities is that the Taliban is more of a foreign ideological movement propped up by Pakistan than an Afghan movement. “Karzai isn’t going to get anywhere negotiating with the Taliban,” says Rahman Oghli, an ethnic Tajik member of parliament. “Why? They don’t have the authority to act on their own. The one with the authority is Pakistan, and they don’t want the war to end.”
Taliban: local insurgency or Pakistani puppets?
The documents released by WikiLeaks allege in particular that former ISI chief Lt. Gen Hamid Gul (ret.), who ran the organization in the late 1980s, has frequented Pakistani madrassas where suicide bombers are trained for Afghanistan, and has attended planning meetings involving the Afghan Taliban seeking to attack both Afghan officials and foreign troops inside the country.
“The hardest line of the Taliban aren’t really Afghans anymore,” says Mohammed Akram, who has been involved in the Karzai government’s outreach program to the Taliban. “They’re Pakistanis – and the results of Pakistani interference has been a stronger Taliban.”
In addition to contacts with the Quetta Shura, the US documents allege that Gul has reached out to Taliban allies Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, who run independent insurgent groups of their own. Forces loyal to both men have been involved in attacks on foreign troops in Afghanistan and locals, though the Afghan government believes that they are more amenable to compromise than the Taliban themselves.
Mr. Karzai has reached out to both men. In a recent interview, Karzai’s national security adviser, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, said Pakistan has refused to take action against the Taliban operating from its soil, but said he didn’t believe Pakistan has any contacts with Mr. Haqqani. Asked if he thought Haqqani was aided in any way by Pakistan, he said simply: “No.”
In that answer is a hint at the complexities of dealing with the war in Afghanistan.
US assassination of Taliban documented very
In some of the documents released by WikiLeaks, Pakistan is alleged to have been involved in encouraging the Haqqani network to murder Indian workers inside Afghanistan, and also to have provided motorcycles to the group to aid them in carrying out suicide attacks inside Afghanistan.
It will take weeks, if not longer, to sift through the mass of documents released Sunday.
Some of the excitement that the early headlines have engendered seems misplaced, however. Much has been made of the “revelation” that US-funded assassination teams have been at work killing alleged Taliban leaders, and detaining others without access to the Red Cross or other traditional protections of prisoners of war.
But these facts have been so well understood in Afghanistan, that they can’t even be called open secrets. The US has, more or less openly, been carrying out an assassination campaign against alleged Taliban members in Pakistan for years – an effort that has been substantially ramped up since President Obama took office.
Other documents released have focused on reports of surface-to-air missiles fired by Taliban infantry (MANPADs in military parlance) at US aircraft a few years ago, one apparently successfully bringing down a US Chinook helicopter.
While the US wasn’t forthcoming about those past incidents, the CIA and Pakistan were involved in supplying such missiles to anti-Soviet Afghan fighters in the 1980s – Hekmatyar and other future Taliban allies among them – and it isn’t entirely a surprise that some might still have been kicking around.
The good news for US pilots is that there doesn’t seem to have been an incident involving the weapons for at least two years – which indicates that supplies have dried up.