The “not much to see here” meme is establishing itself quickly today in some prominent blogs and columns. It’s the approach taken by Michael Crowley in a post for Time’s Swampland blog, posted at 11.48 p.m. last night. Time, which also had no special early access to the documents but has focused heavily on the leaks, buffered its coverage today with a morning post from Joe Klein—comparing the leak to the Vietnam’s game-changing Tet Offensive—and solid reporting, focusing on Gul, from Aryn Baker in Islamabad. Baker, who writes that taken together the leaks are “about as useful as Googling ‘ISI aids Afghanistan insurgency’,” uses her local knowledge and personal experience with Gul to great effect, offering insight to match the big three outlets’ exclusives.
Hamid Gul is every inch the epitome of a retired Pakistani general. He is a gracious host, inviting foreign government officials, analysts and journalists into his home, located in the military cantonment of Rawalpindi. He presides over a silver tea service, offering cups of Chinese green tea he picked up on his travels, while waxing lyrical on his role in defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Taking pride of place on the mantel of his elegantly appointed salon is a piece of the Berlin Wall, presented by the West German government with an engraved plaque: “With deepest respect to Lieut. General Hamid Gul, who helped deliver the first blow.” It’s about the same size as the chip on his shoulder. From 1987 to 1989, Gul, director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency, oversaw the funding, training and equipping of the Afghan mujahedin that helped turn the tide in the anti-Soviet war. For at least a decade he was considered a hero, feted not only in Pakistan but also around the world. These days, he is more likely to be dubbed a villain, particularly in the recently leaked U.S. intelligence documents linking Pakistan’s ISI with the insurgency in Afghanistan.
… But what is missing from the leaked documents is context. What exactly does Pakistan’s ISI hope to achieve in Afghanistan? For years, the short answer has been “strategic depth,” Pakistan’s longtime policy of maintaining a security buffer should archrival India attack. During the 1990s, when Pakistan maintained training camps in Afghanistan for jihadis heading for the contested territory of Kashmir, it made sense for the intelligence agencies to cement ties with the Afghan leadership. The ISI, with help from extremist mullahs and madrasah leaders (fundamental to its campaign to foment an anti-Soviet resistance based on Islamic jihad), was instrumental in helping the Taliban gain a foothold. But does the ISI, and by extension the Pakistani military that is the de facto leadership of the country, really want to see a return of Taliban rule to Kabul?
Interestingly, a quick visit to rival Newsweek’s Web site this afternoon saw no WikiLeaks story filling the lede space. Instead, and somewhat incongruously, there was a picture of Australian prime minister Julia Gillard with links to a story about the warning bells the upcoming Aussie election could sound for Democrats. Newsweek’s WikiLeaks story—Andrew Bast’s “The Pentagon Papers, Redux” way down the bottom of the homepage—cited highlights from the Times’s reporting, the White House’s irritable response to the leaks (a focus of the Christian Science Monitor’s report this morning), and contemplated the possible impact of the story for the president.
As the documents spread, more revelations, patterns, and possibly even more disclosures will follow. Certainly there will be talk of this journalistic moment’s likeness to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Not only did an epic legal battle ensue, but the damning revelations of the war in Vietnam mark a sea change in the way that the American public viewed the war. If the revelations here are as consequential remains to be seen. And, of course, the Pentagon Papers were an official history ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. What we have here, instead, is granular, scattered dispatches from the ground, much of it clouded by the fog of war.
What’s undeniable, however, is that President Obama’s administration—already staggering after firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal and a withering war strategy—will now have to spend the entire week defending a war to an increasingly disenchanted American public.