- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
Most of the response to the WikiLeaks Afghanistan document release thus far has focused on the absence of major revelations, with most of the details reinforcing existing analysis rather than undermining official discourse about the war. A similar response is appropriate to a story making the rounds that the documents bolster the case for significant connections between Iran and al-Qaeda. Information in the documents, according to the Wall Street Journal, "appear to give new evidence of direct contacts between Iranian officials and the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s senior leadership." What’s more important in these stories than the details found in the documents about Iran’s activities in Afghanistan is the attempt to spin them into a narrative of "Iranian ties to al-Qaeda" to bolster the weak case for an American attack on Iran.
There’s no secret about Iran’s role in Afghanistan, of course — this has long been a staple of the debate over Afghan policy, and has also long been pointed out as an area of potential cooperation or conflict between Washington and Tehran. As with much of the rest of the WikiLeaks documents, much of what has been found about Iran’s role in Afghanistan is already generally known, while other information in them is of dubious provenance. It’s not like we didn’t know about Iran and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. These new details do add to the case for taking Iran into account more effectively when designing Afghanistan policy, on both the military and political dimensions. But they don’t add up to some kind of smoking gun demonstrating an Iranian alliance with al-Qaeda.
This use of the WikiLeaks documents brings back some old memories, of a long time ago (March 2006) in a galaxy far far away when the Pentagon posted a massive set of captured Iraqi documents on the internet without context. Analysts dived into them, mostly searching for a smoking gun on Iraqi WMD or ties to al-Qaeda. The right-wing blogs and magazines ran with a series of breathless announcements that something had been found proving one case or another. Each finding would dissolve when put into context or subjected to scrutiny, and at the end it only further confirmed the consensus (outside of the fever swamps, at least) that there had been no significant ties between Saddam and al-Qaeda. But the cumulative effect of each "revelation", even if subsequently discredited, probably fueled the conviction that such ties had existed and did help maintain support for the Iraq war among the faithful. The parallel isn’t exact — in this case, there actually is something real there, and these documents were released against the government’s will — but it does raise some flags about how such documents can be used and misused in the public debate.
That experience is something to remember when an "Iranian ties to al-Qaeda" claim, loosely backed by reference to these documents, enters into the argument to attack Iran which I expect to heat up in the coming few months. It would be irresponsible and misleading to use of the documents to bolster the weak case for war with Iran by raising the specter of "ties to al-Qaeda". But then, the agitation to attack Iran is already following the Iraq script so faithfully that it really only seems natural that we’d get some questionable or exaggerated reports about Iranian ties to al-Qaeda to complete the loop. The tragedy may not yet be over, but farce is impatiently waiting in the wings.