Afghan war disclosures prompt major damage-control effort
Even before the release of tens of thousands of classified Afghanistan war documents Sunday, a clearly worried Obama administration had embarked on an aggressive campaign to reach out to domestic and international stakeholders in the hopes of mitigating the fallout. Administration officials, alerted to the pending leak of reams of reports from the warzone by ...
Even before the release of tens of thousands of classified Afghanistan war documents Sunday, a clearly worried Obama administration had embarked on an aggressive campaign to reach out to domestic and international stakeholders in the hopes of mitigating the fallout.
Administration officials, alerted to the pending leak of reams of reports from the warzone by news organizations, launched a two-pronged, preemptive response: They started calling around to leaders of foreign governments who might be affected to warn them of the story and allay any concerns about U.S. government involvement in the leak, and started working Capitol Hill to limit any misinterpretation as congressmen reacted to the disclosures, which include reports accusing Pakistani intelligence operatives of links to anti-coalition attacks.
"Once we became aware of the existence of this story, we proceeded with several country notifications, as is the case when we are aware of major news stories," a senior administration official told The Cable. "These notifications included Afghanistan and Pakistan, at multiple levels, as well as Germany and the U.K. (given that the documents were leaked to the foreign news outlets Der Spiegel and the Guardian)."
"We’ve also been in touch with members and staff on the Hill over the last couple of days," the senior administration official said.
One particularly important call was between Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari has at times tangled with his country’s top spy agency, the powerful Inter Services Intelligence directorate, and Holbrooke himself said last week while in India that "The links between the ISI and the Taliban are a problem."
Other than Holbrooke, officials involved in the notifications included U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, who happened to be in Pakistan and held a high-level meeting with Pakistani officials Saturday night.
After leaving Pakistan for Afghanistan, Mullen had the difficult task of assuring Afghan tribal leaders that the U.S. government was aware and dealing with the problem of Pakistani links to Afghan insurgents. "I’ve raised that issue. The Pakistani leadership knows it’s a priority," he said Monday at a meeting at a U.S. military base outside Kandahar, according to Agence France Press. "Long-term pressure" on Islamabad, he said, would likely bear fruit.
Although some press reports cited anonymous Pakistani sources speculating that the Obama administration was behind the document dump, Pakistani civilian leaders contacted by the administration over the last couple of days appeared to accept that the U.S. government had no role in the leaks. The message to the Pakistanis was that the information was old, not reliable, and shouldn’t derail ongoing and increasing cooperation between the two governments.
"The White House succeeded in calming our people," said one Pakistani source. "I think we’ve contained the damage on this one, at least on our end."
"Obviously we’ll be watching closely to see how various countries and populations respond to the information that’s here," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who added that the State Department believes Pakistan is committed "at the leadership level" to rooting out terrorists. According to Crowley, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was contacted directly. "We also gave a heads-up to India," he said.
Jones was also working the phones Sunday night and hosting meetings for foreign representatives at the White House Monday to make sure there was no ill will resulting from the revelations. Jones’s statement released Sunday night praised recent Pakistani cooperation in fighting terrorism and included the line, "These irresponsible leaks will not impact our ongoing commitment to deepen our partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan; to defeat our common enemies; and to support the aspirations of the Afghan and Pakistani people."
The administration’s relationship with the ISI has apparently not been derailed by the Wikileaks disclosures. ISI chief Lt Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha is expected to visit Washington soon, one of a series of meetings he’s been having with U.S. officials.
On the Hill, offices contacted included those of Senate Foreign Relations heads John Kerry, D-MA, and Richard Lugar, R-IN, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton, D-MO, and others.
One source said that Skelton’s statement, which heavily criticized the actions by Wikileaks and praised recent Pakistani cooperation using themes similar to Jones’s statement, was coordinated with the administration. Skelton could not be reached for comment.
"It is critical that we not use outdated reports to paint a picture of the cooperation of Pakistan in our efforts in Afghanistan," Skelton said. "Since these reports were issued, Pakistan has significantly stepped up its fight against the Taliban, including efforts that led to the capture of the highest-ranking member of the Taliban since the start of the war."
Other leading Democrats were more critical of Pakistan.
"Some of these documents reinforce a longstanding concern of mine about the supporting role of some Pakistani officials in the Afghan insurgency," read Levin’s statement. "When Sen. Jack Reed and I visited Pakistan this month, we strongly urged the Pakistanis to take forceful action against militant networks using Pakistan as a base to attack Afghanistan and our troops."
The administration got some rare support Monday from Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-CT, who condemned the leak in a statement. "The disclosure of tens of thousands of classified documents on the Afghanistan war is profoundly irresponsible and harmful to our national security, Lieberman said.
The State Department said it had not decided whether one person, such as Private Bradley Manning, who already stands accused of leaking classified information to Wikileaks, was the source of the documents.
"We’re trying to determine if this is related to that ongoing investigation or a new leak," Crowley said.
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.