Wikileaks and Afghanistan — What we’ve learned

WIKILEAKS AND AFGHANISTAN — WHAT WE’VE LEARNED…. We knew the blockbuster story would come eventually; we just didn’t know when or what revelations it might include. But this morning, the New York Times and the UK’s Guardian report on tens of thousands of classified documents on the war in Afghanistan, revealed through Wikileaks.

There’s no shortage of angles here, but I found Michael Crowley’s take pretty compelling.

The Obama White House is furious this morning about the massive leak of military documents chronicling the unvarnished truth about the Afghanistan war. At the same time, though, there must be a certain sense of relief around the West Wing. When they first learned that the whistleblower website WikiLeaks had given the New York Times, among others, an astonishing 92,0000 documents, senior Obama officials must have been in a panic about what terrible secrets might emerge. But it turns out that most of the terrible aspects of the Afghanistan war — at least those detailed by this trove of insider accounts — are already pretty well known.

It’s never been a secret, for instance, that the Taliban have proven more resilient than anyone expected; that U.S. special forces hunt and eliminate Taliban leaders without the courtesy of a fair trial; that elements within our putative ally Pakistan play a sinister double game with radical Islamists; that our troops kill innocent Afghans on a regular basis. It’s not even a secret, as anyone familiar with the Pat Tillman saga knows, that the military sometimes manipulates facts about the war.

The trove of leaked documents affirms all these facts. And in their texture and detail–which it will take some time for other new outlets to sift in full–certainly offer a new appreciation for how difficult the war effort is. But based on their presentation by the news organizations given time by Wikileaks to study them before their release, the documents don’t seem to reveal fundamental new truths.

That sounds about right. With 92,000 pages of materials documents being made public, I wouldn’t be surprised if some additional revelations came to light, beyond what’s been published in the media this morning, but for now, most of what we’re learning seems to confirm what’s already been reported, or is a little out-dated. Indeed, the documents cover January 2004 to December 2009, pre-dating the overhaul of U.S. policy announced by the White House late last year.

In the case of Pakistan’s military spy service lending support to the Afghan insurgency, for example, that’s important — it’s the lede of the NYT piece today — but it’s something we already knew. In fact, the president has already talked about it publicly, and more importantly, it’s a dynamic that’s improved of late, with Pakistani officials having moved away from the Taliban earlier this year.

This isn’t to say it’s a non-story, and there are some revelations that seem new. U.S. drone missions have apparently crashed far more than we’d been led to believe, for example, and the Taliban has heat-seeking missiles that we hadn’t heard about. And while details like these clearly matter, they’re not necessarily the kind of disclosures that are likely to fundamentally change the debate.

But for the administration, it may not be the specific details that matter most. Rather, this may be more of a sum-greater-than-parts situation — the larger revelations may not reframe the entire conflict, but taken together, they still paint a portrait of a conflict that’s gone very poorly for the last several years. If the administration’s goal is to bolster public confidence in the mission, today certainly won’t help.