I’ve seen the future, and Marc Thiessen’s fingerprints are all over it. Yes, scary thought, I know, but as I read his latest Washington Post column I couldn’t escape this conclusion. In it, Thiessen has provided what will surely become a popular excuse for our inevitable defeat in Afghanistan: It’s WikiLeaks’ fault, it’s all WikiLeaks’ fault. As Thiessen writes:
[Julian] Assange’s illegal disclosures are helping the Taliban to undermine Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy before it has a chance to work.Now certainly Assange should have redacted the names of the informers, and certainly these documents aren’t going to bolster Afghan trust in American troops—partly for the reason Thiessen states and partly because the documents reveal “how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents.” But it’s absurd for Thiessen to suggest that WikiLeaks has dealt a “devastating blow to the surge in Afghanistan.” It’s not like the American effort had been going oh-so-swimmingly before WikiLeaks came along.
The documents Assange made public exposed the identities of at least 100 Afghans who were informing on the Taliban—in some cases including the names of their villages, family members, the Taliban commanders on whom they were informing, and even GPS coordinates where they could be found. The Taliban quickly announced that it was combing the WikiLeaks Web site for information to use to punish these Afghans.
While the goal of the Petraeus-McChrystal counterinsurgency strategy [.pdf] has been to win over the local population, to turn them against the insurgency and towards the Afghan government, even the Pentagon has implicitly conceded that coalition forces are failing to achieve this end. According to an April report given to Congress, although the Afghan population does not support the government in any of the country’s 121 “key districts,” it supports the Taliban in 8 key districts; and although the population “sympathizes with” the Afghan government in 29 key districts (24%), it sympathizes with the Taliban in 40 districts (33%).
During one of his last briefings, about a month before WikiLeaks released those 76,000 documents, General McChrystal admitted that the American effort had been hampered by an “ineffective or discredited” Afghan government and a “resilient and growing insurgency” and that there was no reason to believe things would get any better within the next six months.
And yet Marc Thiessen is preparing to blame WikiLeaks for our defeat. “[J]ust four days after the WikiLeaks documents were published,” he writes, “death threats began arriving at the homes of Afghan tribal leaders. A few days later, one such leader was dragged from his home and executed.” Of course, there’s no evidence that this man’s identity was compromised by the WikiLeaks documents, as even Thiessen admits. And it’s not like insurgents have just started killing suspected collaborators. During the first six months of this year, McClatchy recently reported, “Taliban assassins killed an average of one pro-government Afghan a day.”
But Thiessen continues blasting WikiLeaks, claiming that “WikiLeaks just made the Taliban’s job a lot easier. Indeed, the Taliban could not have come up with a better plan to defeat Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy.” He goes on to ask: “How can Petraeus persuade Afghans to join the fight against the Taliban when WikiLeaks has demonstrated that America cannot protect their identities?” Valid though this question may be, it misses a more important point, which is that our counterinsurgency operation was never going to succeed.
This latter point is underscored by a 2008 RAND study which, after surveying 89 different insurgencies which have occurred over the past 60 years, concluded [.pdf] that “there is no empirical basis for expecting successful COIN in conjunction with large-scale foreign military intervention.” In fact, a foreign military presence actually tends to strengthen an insurgency. Iraq is a prime example of this: while the US captured or killed 70,000 Iraqi insurgents from 2004-2006, the total number of insurgents during that time period increased from 5,000 to 25,000. “Although the Sunni insurgency may have begun receding in 2007,” the study noted, “the so-called ‘Tribal Awakening’ has had more to do with this than U.S. forces have.”
In order to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan, the study suggested that the US should “assume a smaller military footprint.” “The principal role of U.S. forces should be to enable the local state to provide security by building high-quality security services and providing critical operational support.” Needless to say, we haven’t accomplished this, mostly because Afghanistan’s security forces have proven to be so grossly inept.
So WikiLeaks isn’t the problem. The problem is that numerous factors in Afghanistan have made it all but impossible for the US to implement a successful counterinsurgency. The answer, then, is not to follow Marc Thiessen’s advice and “bring Assange to justice and put his criminal syndicate out of business.” The answer is to start listening to people like Richard Haass and Andrew Bacevich and to finally end this senseless, stupid war.