WikiLeaks and AfPak: What "Everyone" Knows

I lack the background knowledge about Afghanistan and Pakistan to put the new information in full perspective, not to mention lacking the time to read more than a little of the vast data dump. Therefore only these points about the still-emerging significance of what's now on public record:

1) "Everyone" knows this already. People who have been very close to this story say that little of the information is "new," in a fundamental sense. See the Atlantic Wire's summary here, Mother Jones here and here, and (splenetically and amusingly) Andrew Exum here. Fine.

2) But not everyone actually did. Notwithstanding #1, information that may be old news to insiders may seem a revelation to the broader public. Whether from George W. Bush or Barack Obama, presidential speeches about Afghanistan have not emphasized the mixed loyalties of the Pakistani security services, the frustrations of dealing with tribal leaders and corrupt officials, the extent of civilian casualties, and other items that, according to insiders, "everyone" already knows. At this stage it's impossible to say whether a vast, somewhat hard-to-digest compilation of raw reports, released in the middle of summer, will mean that "everyone" in a broader sense comes to share this insider perspective.

3) And that's the possible similarity to the Pentagon Papers. Afghanistan is different from Vietnam, Barack Obama is different from Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the raw battlefield intel from WikiLeaks is different from the inside policy memos of the Pentagon Papers, and so on. But the basic similarity of the cases involves the question of what "everyone" knows. By 1971, anyone who had been really following the Vietnam war already "knew," or could guess, much of what was in the Pentagon Papers. The Papers mattered because of (a) the confirmation that the government had known about the problems for a very long time, and (b) the spreading of that understanding to the broader public. If the WikiLeaks documents, coming during what is already the deadliest month ever for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, really do mark a shift in mainstream opinion about the war, it will be because everyone [general public, press, and politicians] will now recognize what "everyone" [insiders] already knew.

Below and after the jump, a reader message about the awkwardness of even discussing "winning" this kind of war. The reader writes:

By shaping the debate on AfPak into a question of "winning", the governments and the media have succeeded to turn something very serious into absurdity.

There are three kinds of military objectives

1. Knocking out the enemy

2. Denying the enemy the use of a geographic area (or other resource)

3. Securing a geographic area (or other resource) for own use
Only the first of these have any relationship with "winning", and even that one has to be qualified with the question "for how long?".

The two others are not something you can "win". It is something you keep doing for as long as it is beneficial for your grander political goals. So it is not only absurd to talk about winning in Afghanistan. It is also the most dangerous rethoric you can use. By shaping AfPak into a discussion about "winning", the next question is winning when, and winning how, and what does a victory look like.

If the debate had been centered around "securing Afghanistan or parts of it for own use" for as long as it serves our strategic interests, the debate could take a much more constructive turn. If someone then asks "for how long?", you could answer "for as long as there is a high risk of radical Islam to take control over 50 nukes in Pakistan", or "for as long as the AQ center of gravity still resides in the AfPak area" or some other rational objective (the first one is in my opinion a very good reason for staying there and paying the costs of doing so)

In such a narrative nobody should ask for a stategy in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the strategy. The question is which tactics are most likely to keep the costs (in lives and dollars) of securing Afghanistan for own use as low as possible during the time we wish/need to control the area. COIN may be the smart move to keep the cost as low as possible, but it force us to stretch our forces thin ower a huge area

The USA and Nato politicians have dug themselves into this rethorical hole, and by doing so have dealt the other side all the aces. "proven it can't be won" proves my point.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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