Not the Pentagon Papers
No one who's been paying attention should be surprised by the WikiLeaks documents about the war in Afghanistan.
The Times' take on the documents is less purple. (The front-page headlines are almost boring: "The Afghan Struggle: A Secret Archive," "Unvarnished Look at Hamstrung Fight," and "Pakistani Spy Unit Aiding Insurgents, Reports Suggest.") Still, the main article's lede claims that the documents offer "an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal."
Notice the wide-open hedge: "in many respects." But in any case, it isn't true. Take a look at the Defense Department's official, unclassified, 150-page report, dated April 2010 and titled "Report and Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan." Taken as a whole, it's much grimmer than the scattershot of documents in the WikiLeaks file. More to the point, the documents, which are given half of the Times' front page and five full pages inside, are nowhere nearly as grim—to say nothing of insightful, close-up, or comprehensive—as any number of reports from Afghanistan by the Times' own Dexter Filkins or Carlotta Gall.
Moreover, several of the WikiLeaks documents don't really indicate what they seem at first glance to indicate, as sometimes the Times' editors acknowledge. For example, an "incident report" from Helmand Province, dated May 30, 2007, notes that the Taliban shot down a U.S. CH-47 transport helicopter with what appeared to be a heat-seeking missile, even though a NATO spokesman told reporters at the time that it was shot down by small-arms fire. Thirty years ago, the mujahedeen used CIA-supplied Stinger missiles to shoot down hundreds of Soviet helicopters; their success in this area was a major factor behind the Soviets' defeat. So this revelation is potentially a big deal. However, the Times writer summarizing the documents on this incident notes, "The reports suggest that the Taliban's use of these missiles has been neither common nor especially effective; usually the missiles missed."
Similarly, a "civil affairs report" from Paktia province, on Nov. 15, 2006, notes how aid is being hampered by "corrupt, negligent, and antagonistic officials." However, the Times summary of this report concludes: "Finally, the corrupt officials were replaced. But it took months." (I don't mean to dispute, or at all minimize, the pervasiveness of corruption throughout Afghanistan. But if this is one of the two or three most damning instances of it that the Times could find in these documents, then the documents aren't very useful.)
An "incident report" from Badakhshan province, dated, Sept. 13, 2009, notes that one of the Air Force's Reaper armed drones lost the satellite link to its U.S.-based ground controller and flew, unguided, out of control. (An F-15 had to be dispatched to shoot down the drone before it crossed into Tajikistan.) This might be interesting if we knew how often this sort of thing happens, but that would take some reporting. It's also worth noting that drones do sometimes crash or get shot down—and that's part of the Air Force's rationale for the drone program: When a low-flying airplane gets shot down, as sometimes happens, it's better that it be unmanned than manned.
Journalism, the old saw has it, is the first draft of history. The WikiLeaks documents amount to the first notes of a journalistic story, and incomplete notes at that. The war in Afghanistan may or may not be a tragedy, a failure, and a mistake. In any case, you're more likely to learn that from reports and reporters, not from these random, raw files.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.