NEW DELHI — When reports of WikiLeaks’ disclosure of raw U.S. intelligence data from Afghanistan hit computers worldwide, commentators in Pakistan reacted with vitriolic broadsides. One spoke of “Neocon vampires” . . . “bloodthirsty Islamophobes” . . . “think tank irredentists” . . . (Indian) revanchists planning another dismemberment.”

Strong words — particularly when compared to those of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was merely “mortified” and “appalled.” The leaks provoked such fiery debate because the U.S.-led fight against “jihadism” had suddenly run into an unexpected adversary: truth.

Indeed, it now seems clear to anyone with eyes that the invasion of Afghanistan was built upon a great miscalculation: that Afghanistan could be successfully invaded.

Throughout history, such undertakings have always floundered. The country may be occupied, but only temporarily; it cannot be conquered. The realization of this historical truth, which the WikiLeaks affair has brought home, is now troubling today’s invaders.

The great miscalculation that led to the Afghan invasion was based on a faulty response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Of those who attacked the United States, an overwhelming number were citizens of Saudi Arabia, aided by Pakistanis. How curious that, even before its mission in Iraq had been concluded, the U.S. ratcheted up the Afghan war with the “surge” of military force.

So, almost a decade after the war began, we are back to asking a basic question: Toward what goal is this endeavor directed? If it is about countering terrorism, then why are the U.S. and NATO not in Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan, which are increasingly becoming terrorist havens? Or is the war in Afghanistan really now about countering the insurgents fighting Hamid Karzai’s government?

Unless these questions are answered intelligently, the venture is fated to be perceived as a confused folly. This is why the WikiLeaks disclosure has proved so devastating, as the revelations strike at the very foundation of both the “moral” basis of the war and the ambiguous motives that are now used to justify it.

In attacking “terrorism” and simultaneously engaging in “counter- insurgency,” the U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan have become the perpetrators of what they are fighting. Worse yet, a feeling of imperial revival has also become part of the picture, and not only among Afghans. This sense of imperial occupation has transformed the supposed solution to the problem of terror in Afghanistan into the problem itself.

If the muddle of motives in Afghanistan is not bad enough, Pakistan adds to the confusion. Without Pakistan as a strategic partner to provide land, resources and military support, operations in Afghanistan would be stymied further.

But Pakistani support clearly comes at a high price. The U.S. tries to “buy” a Pakistani ally that dictates the terms of collaboration and simultaneously guards its flanks by keeping open its communication channels with the Taliban. This is an entirely understandable precaution taken by Pakistan, whose government, like every other in the region, must be prepared for the day when the U.S. and NATO withdraw from Afghanistan.

It is, of course, good that the U.S. no longer thinks that Afghanistan can be transformed into some Jeffersonian democracy on the Hindu Kush. But an even more fundamental reservation should have followed, since Afghanistan is more of a concept — a polyglot entity of various ethnic groups — than a functioning state.

Afghans live in a shifting pattern of loyalty to Kabul. Only when the ruling “emir” in Kabul demonstrates understanding, tolerance and strength do Afghan unity and a sort of peace prevail. Finding that type of Afghan leadership is the true challenge today. So it is vital to accept that Afghanistan cannot be governed centrally, only guided.

The crux of the failures of the Western alliance lies in its lack of a true understanding of Afghanistan’s essence. As for other complicating factors, such as the support of some parts of Pakistan’s military establishment for the Taliban and al-Qaida, a three-decade-old reality must be kept in mind: The Taliban were born of the 1980s’ confluence of national interests between the U.S. and Pakistan, and any attempt to drive the Taliban out of Waziristan risks tearing Pakistan apart.

In addition, Pakistan, in the words of chief military officer General Ashfaq Kayani, views the Taliban as “a strategic asset” in the struggle with India. The U.S. and NATO do not seem to have considered what will be needed to separate Pakistan’s foreign-policy objectives from the requirements of domestic cohesion, since irredentist agitation against India is part of the glue that holds Pakistan together.

By targeting the Taliban, the U.S. has converted them into an insurgent army of resistance that the population is beginning, once again, to find acceptable. Yes, Al-Qaida is made up of unwelcome “foreigners,” but when U.S. and NATO forces attack, all unite — and Pakistan covertly backs that union.

This dynamic is something that South Asians have lived with for ages. WikiLeaks has now documented our hard-earned knowledge in a language that ordinary Americans and Europeans understand.

The urgent task facing U.S. President Barack Obama is to get American strategy out of its cul-de-sac and move it in a direction that balances its own national interests with those of India, Pakistan and China. An extraordinarily complex end game is under way. The longer it drags out, the more destructive the final outcome will be.

Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister and defense minister, is the author of “Jinnah: India — Partition — Independence.” © 2010 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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