No one who's been paying attention should be surprised by the WikiLeaks documents about the war in Afghanistan.

Military analysis.
July 26 2010 3:00 PM

Not the Pentagon Papers

No one who's been paying attention should be surprised by the WikiLeaks documents about the war in Afghanistan.

WikiLeaks Founder: "Evidence of War Crimes". Click image to go to Slate V.

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.

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.

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