A gritty close-up of the troubled Afghan war

A cache of 92,000 classified military documents released by WikiLeaks provided a grim assessment of the war in Afghanistan by commanders and operatives on the ground from 2004 to 2009.

What happened

A cache of 92,000 classified military documents released this week provided a grim view of the war in Afghanistan, portraying the war effort as engulfed in chaos and marred by civilian casualties, double-dealing tribal leaders, and secretive cooperation between the Taliban and Pakistan. The documents, released by the shadowy Internet organization called WikiLeaks, consist largely of raw intelligence from commanders and operatives on the ground from 2004 to 2009. They generally do not contradict the Obama administration’s sober characterization of the war, but they do highlight troubling aspects of the conflict, including rampant corruption in Afghanistan’s government and suspicions that elements of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency are collaborating with Taliban insurgents and al Qaida. The release, coming amid mounting public and congressional doubts about the war, increases the pressure on President Obama to justify his ongoing “surge” of 30,000 troops.

WikiLeaks, which bills itself as an online clearinghouse for official secrets, shared the documents with The New York Times, Britain’s The Guardian, and German magazine Der Spiegel, giving them about a month to verify their authenticity. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said he believed there was evidence of “war crimes” in the documents’ description of civilian casualties, adding that he hoped the disclosures would result in “new policies, if not prosecutions.” U.S. officials dismissed the documents as old news, but condemned WikiLeaks, saying the release of intelligence could endanger American lives and national security.

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What the editorials said

Well, that was underwhelming, said The Washington Post. “Americans are already familiar with” the war narrative fleshed out by the secret reports. They detail an insurgency gathering strength during the Bush years, “while U.S. and NATO forces suffered from insufficient resources.” That’s not news. The real news is WikiLeaks’ “profound irresponsibility,” said the New York Post. Driven by his anti-war agenda, Assange made no attempt to screen the documents for information that “might endanger the lives of American soldiers.” It’s not up to Assange—or The New York Times—to decide which military secrets should be publicly disclosed.

Assange’s motives are “barely even interesting, much less important,” said the Los Angeles Times. What matters is whether Americans are “best served by secrecy or debate.” That’s obvious: A democratic nation should wage war only with the people’s consent, “and that consent is only meaningful if it is predicated on real information.” The Obama administration should thank WikiLeaks, said The Boston Globe. The revelations of Pakistan’s duplicity can increase our leverage over that nation’s government and “bolster U.S. demands” that Pakistan “stop working with the Taliban.”

What the columnists said

One of the most telling incidents described in the reports occurs when a U.S. convoy is stopped by 100 heavily armed insurgents, said Amy Davidson in The New Yorker. The gunmen were working for a local warlord whom the U.S. was already paying to keep the road open. The convoy could pass, the gunmen said, if the soldiers paid a $3,000 bribe per truck. There’s the war in a nutshell. By trying to prop up a corrupt and ineffectual regime, Americans “are robbing ourselves, both of our purse and our good name.”

It’s right out of Catch-22, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. Gen. David Petraeus, who’s just taken over command of the war, must choose between letting the Taliban continue to pick off and blow up American soldiers, or give the soldiers the green light to fight more aggressively—causing more civilian casualties and “more grieving relatives turned into Taliban sympathizers.”

Once again, the Left is insisting that we’re back in the quagmire of Vietnam, said Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal. After we cut and run in Southeast Asia, the communists murdered 165,000 South Vietnamese, 1 million “boat people” fled in terror, and Pol Pot led a genocide in which as many as 2 million Cambodians were exterminated. To advocate giving up because this war is difficult, one must be “profoundly indifferent to whatever furies will engulf Afghanistan once the Taliban returns, as surely they will.”

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