The leaking of 91,000 classified documents on the Afghanistan war is being compared, imprecisely, with the Pentagon Papers leak of 39 years ago that unmasked official U.S. deceptions about the Vietnam War. The latest document dump merely provides more raw material with which to make similar accusations.
The Pentagon Papers were a careful compilation of reports and analysis by military officialdom that often clashed with the rose-colored Nixon administration contentions of seeing light at the end of a tunnel when there was little of it. They were intentionally leaked by Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg in the hope of putting brakes on a failing policy.
The latest release — from an international organization called WikiLeaks through three news outlets — has, according to quick review by experts on the Afghan War, uncovered little new, but rather fleshes out old stories with eyewitness accounts of various military failures and excesses.
Yet the timing may prove to be critical as Congress debates the Obama administration's request for more funds to bankroll the troop surge and accompanying revised strategy set in place last December. Significantly, it seeks to refocus the war back onto the al-Qaida perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks rather than to rescue the corrupt regime of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai.
Inasmuch as the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has provided a haven for al-Qaida from the start of the war (if less so now), the two missions obviously overlap. But the Obama revised strategy has clung to the rationale that the existence of al-Qaida remains the prime justification for the American involvement, rather than the Bush administration's nation-building adventure there and in Iraq.
The WikiLeaks documents cover only the period from January 2004 through December 2009, before the Obama refocus, a compromise hammered out over months of debate between U.S. military leaders in the field and White House officials, led most prominently by Vice President Joe Biden.
In the end, the American commander in Afghanistan at the time, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, got most but not all of the increased combat forces he sought as imperative to avoid defeat. But Mr. Biden was instrumental in having a timetable of July 2011 attached for starting to withdraw the surged troops.
Since then, the continuing debate in Congress over the Afghan war has focused on that timetable, and whether it allows sufficient time for an outcome satisfactory to the objective of containing the threat of further attacks on U.S. national security. The Obama administration has said the timetable still holds, but many members of Congress in both parties have argued for flexibility.
Gen. David Petraeus, in assuming the American command in Afghanistan after the firing of General McChrystal over published criticisms of Mr. Biden and other White House aides, has also emphasized that the July 2011 date would be only the start of any troop drawdown.
The latest, massive leak of classified documents — painting as they do a picture of widespread U.S. military problems in combating the Taliban insurgency, including alleged liaisons between the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence — can only add to American concerns at home that the Afghan war has become a fool's errand.
But the Obama administration can claim that its torturous re-evaluation of Afghanistan war policy that led to the 30,000-troop surge ordered seven months ago was a corrective response to the failures of the earlier period. It can be expected to argue to Congress that slow progress is being made toward conditions that can permit the promised start of combat troop withdrawals a year from now.
In any event, it remains to be seen whether the latest classified documents leak will add significant fuel to an already growing anti-war sentiment, comparable to what the Pentagon Papers achieved against the American involvement in Vietnam of nearly four decades ago.
President Obama's strategy from the start called for a reassessment by the end of this year as to whether it was working. As Tuesday's House vote approving $59 billion to continue financing America's two ways indicates, nothing that has just been disclosed is likely to dissuade Congress from giving him the funds he needs to get to that point.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.