Not the Pentagon Papers
No one who's been paying attention should be surprised by the WikiLeaks documents about the war in Afghanistan.
Just because some documents are classified doesn't mean that they're news or even necessarily interesting. A case in point is the cache of 92,000 secret documents about the Afghanistan war that someone leaked to WikiLeaks, which passed them on to the New York Times, Britain's Guardian, and Der Spiegel in Germany. All three published several of these documents—presumably the highlights—in today's editions.
Some of the conclusions to be drawn from these files: Afghan civilians are sometimes killed. Many Afghan officials and police chiefs are corrupt and incompetent. Certain portions of Pakistan's military and intelligence service have nefarious ties to the Taliban.
If any of this startles you, then welcome to the world of reading newspapers. Today's must be the first one you've read.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has likened these documents to the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret history of the Vietnam War that Daniel Ellsberg leaked in 1972. The comparison is preposterous.
The Pentagon Papers—a study commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to find out just how the United States got involved in Vietnam—was a finished, multivolume history, containing classified documents, which revealed that the Vietnam War was largely a civil war; that it might never have erupted, had the United States abided by the 1954 Geneva agreement, which called for nationwide elections to unify North and South Vietnam; and, most crucially, that, by early 1965, even as they spoke optimistically about the prospects of victory, several top U.S. officials knew the war was lost. In short, the Pentagon Papers revealed that, from the beginning and continuing through the escalation under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the war was a lie.
By contrast, there's very little in the raw WikiLeaks documents—at least among those reprinted in the Times and the Guardian—that is at all inconsistent with official U.S. and NATO statements about the war in Afghanistan. President Obama and various allied leaders, as well as their top aides and commanders, have acknowledged and decried all of these nightmares—civilian casualties, corruption, Pakistani collusion, and more—openly and repeatedly.
These problems were, in fact, the main reasons behind the new strategy that Obama put in place in December 2009—after the period covered by all of the WikiLeaks documents, which date from 2004-09.
None of which stopped the newspapers from having a go at hyping the documents' significance. The Guardian's opening statement is breathless: "The logs we publish today, a detailed chronicle of a violent conflict that has lasted longer than the Vietnam war, longer than the two world wars, shatter the illusion that conflicts could be meticulously planned and executed, and the assumption that bloodshed would be acceptable only in very limited quantities."
This "illusion," to the extent anybody believed it at all, was "shattered" by the opening rounds of the insurgency in Iraq in the late spring of 2003. Nobody has believed it, about Iraq or Afghanistan, for a moment ever since. No official, at least not since former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, has tried to pull the notion over on anybody. Quite the contrary, every official has acknowledged that war generally, and this war in particular, is messy and deadly, that the enemy adapts and so we must change our plans, too, and that in any case blood will flow. The Guardian's dispatches from Afghanistan have been excellent. Surely none of this comes as news to its editors.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.