Duplicitous ally may face the American heat

US hopes that the leaks may help pressure Pakistan to cooperate more on counterterrorism

The disclosures, with their detailed account of a war faring even more poorly than two administrations had portrayed, landed at a crucial moment. Because of difficulties on the ground and mounting casualties in the war, the debate over the American presence in Afghanistan has begun earlier than expected. Inside the administration, more officials are privately questioning the policy.

In Congress, House leaders were rushing to hold a vote on a critical war-financing bill as early as Tuesday, fearing that the disclosures could stoke Democratic opposition to the measure. A Senate panel is also set to hold a hearing on Tuesday on  Obama’s choice to head the military’s central command, Gen James N Mattis, who would oversee military operations in Afghanistan.

Administration officials acknowledged that the documents, released on the Internet by an organisation called WikiLeaks, will make it harder for Obama as he tries to hang on to public and Congressional support until the end of the year, when he has scheduled a review of the war effort.

“We don’t know how to react,” one frustrated administration official said on Monday. “This obviously puts Congress and the public in a bad mood.”

Obama is facing a tough choice: he must either figure out a way to convince Congress and the American people that his war strategy remains on track and is seeing fruit — a harder sell given that the war is lagging — or move more quickly to a far more limited American presence.

As the debate over the war begins anew, administration officials have been striking tones similar to the Bush administration’s to argue for continuing the current Afghanistan strategy, which calls for a significant troop buildup. Richard C Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Afghan war effort came down to a matter of American national security, in testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee.

The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, struck a similar note on Monday in responding to the documents, which WikiLeaks made accessible to “The New York Times”, the British newspaper “The Guardian” and the German magazine “Der Spiegel”.
“We are in this region of the world because of what happened on 9/11,” Gibbs said. “Ensuring that there is not a safe haven in Afghanistan by which attacks against this country and countries around the world can be planned. That’s why we’re there, and that’s why we’re going to continue to make progress on this relationship.”

Several administration officials privately expressed hope that they might be able to use the leaks, and their description of a sometimes duplicitous Pakistani ally, to pressure the government of Pakistan to cooperate more fully with the United States on counterterrorism. The documents seem to lay out rich new details of connections between the Taliban and other militant groups and Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.

Congressional anger

Three administration officials separately expressed hope that they might be able to use the documents to gain leverage in efforts to get more help from Pakistan. Two of them raised the possibility of warning the Pakistanis that congressional anger might threaten American aid. “This is now out in the open,” a senior administration official said. “It’s reality now. In some ways, it makes it easier for us to tell the Pakistanis that they have to help us.”

But much of the pushback from the White House over the past two days has been to stress that the connection between the ISI and the Taliban was well known. “I don’t think that what is being reported hasn’t in many ways been publicly discussed, either by you all or by representatives of the US government, for quite some time,”  Gibbs said during a briefing on Monday.

While agreeing that the disclosures were not altogether new, some leading Democrats said that the new details underscored deep suspicions they have harboured toward the ISI.

“Some of these documents reinforce a longstanding concern of mine about the supporting role of some Pakistani officials in the Afghan insurgency,” said senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who heads the armed services committee. During a visit to Pakistan this month, Levin, who has largely supported the war, said he confronted senior Pakistani leaders about the ISI’s continuing ties to the militant groups.

And others said that the documents should serve as an impetus to correct deficiencies in strategy. The White House appeared to be focusing some of its ire toward Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.org, the Web site that provided access to about 92,000 secret military reports spanning the period from January 2004 through December 2009.

White House officials e-mailed reporters select transcripts of an interview Assange conducted with “Der Spiegel”, underlining the quotations the White House apparently found most offensive. Among them was Assange’s assertion, “I enjoy crushing bastards.”
At a news conference in London on Monday, Assange defended the release of the documents. “I’d like to see this material taken seriously and investigated, and new policies, if not prosecutions, result from it,” he said.

Pakistan strongly denied suggestions that its military spy service has guided the Afghan insurgency.

A senior ISI official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under standard practice, sharply condemned the reports as “part of the malicious campaign to malign the spy organisation” and said the ISI would “continue to eradicate the menace of terrorism with or without the help of the west.”

Farhatullah Babar, the spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, dismissed the reports and said that Pakistan remained “a part of a strategic alliance of the United States in the fight against terrorism.”

While Pakistani officials protested, a spokesman for the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said that Karzai was not upset by the documents and did not believe the picture they painted was unfair.

Speaking after a news conference in Kabul, Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, was asked whether there was anything in the leaked documents that angered Karzai or that he thought unfair. “No, I don’t think so,” Omar said.

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