THE BLOG
12/06/2010 01:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Guardian Misreports WikiLeaks on US Stance on Taliban Talks

As evidence for the observation that the clear and present danger that WikiLeaks represents to Western civilization as we know it has been wildly exaggerated, consider this shocking revelation from the Guardian last Thursday. Under the headline: "WikiLeaks cables show surrender is only option offered to Taliban: Afghan president speaks publicly of negotiation but pursues US-backed policy that rejects talks with insurgent leadership," the Guardian reported that "the secret cables show a united US front against talks" and that Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said: "There will be no power-sharing with elements of the Taliban."

If the representation of Thursday's Guardian article were a true description of present-day reality, that would be an extremely damning revelation. It would prove that recent US government public statements that the US supports talks with senior Taliban leaders and is open to a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan that includes the Afghan Taliban are lies.

But there's a problem. Although the Guardian article uses the present tense to describe US policy as revealed by the WikiLeaks cables, the cable cited by the Guardian in which Holbrooke is quoted is dated January 28, 2010. The fact that the US previously opposed talks with senior Taliban officials is a matter of public record. But subsequently, the US claimed that its policy had changed.

Indeed, the Guardian reported in July, under the headline: "White House shifts Afghanistan strategy towards talks with Taliban: Senior Washington officials tell the Guardian of a 'change of mindset' over Obama administration's Afghanistan policy":

The White House is revising its Afghanistan strategy to embrace the idea of negotiating with senior members of the Taliban through third parties -- a policy to which it had previously been lukewarm.

Negotiating with the Taliban has long been advocated by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and the British and Pakistani governments, but resisted by Washington.

The Guardian has learned that while the American government is still officially resistant to the idea of talks with Taliban leaders, behind the scenes a shift is underway and Washington is encouraging Karzai to take a lead in such negotiations.

"There is a change of mindset in DC," a senior official in Washington said. "There is no military solution. That means you have to find something else. There was something missing."

That missing element was talks with the Taliban leadership, the official added.

As the Guardian noted in the July article:

Earlier this year Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, distinguished between "reintegration", which the US supported, and "reconciliation" or negotiating with senior Taliban. Holbrooke said: "Let me be clear. There is no American involvement in any reconciliation process."

In other words, according to the Guardian's own reporting, the public Holbrooke of "earlier this year" described by the Guardian in July matches the private Holbrooke of January as revealed by the leaked cable.

Now, of course, this doesn't prove that US policy has meaningfully changed, or that Richard Holbrooke is an exemplary human being. But it shows that Thursday's Guardian article should not have used the present tense to describe US policy based on the leaked cables while ignoring its own reporting, subsequent to the dates of the leaked cables being examined, that the US said its policy had changed. A lot has happened in the world since January, including official moves by the Afghan government to engage senior Taliban leaders, moves officially supported by the US. None of the cables cited in the Thursday Guardian article appear to be more recent than January, and all of the claims that the Guardian article makes in the present tense appear to have been broadly known in press reports as having been true at the time that the cables were written.

It remains unclear how serious the U.S. is about pursuing a plausible negotiated settlement. It is not at all clear that the US now really supports a plausible power-sharing deal in Afghanistan, or meaningful negotiations with senior Taliban officials. But to claim the contrary, we need evidence from after the US announced that it had changed its policy.

It's important to understand this situation as best we can, because the most important change in policy needed to end the war sooner rather than later is for the U.S. to seriously pursue a negotiated political settlement that ends the war.

So it's important that what we know about the US stance be reported correctly. If public understanding of the situation becomes pea soup, that makes it harder for people to effectively advocate for the needed change in policy to end the war.