Wikileaks' release of classified field reports on Afghan war reveals not much

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

THOUGH IT may represent one of the most voluminous leaks of classified military information in U.S. history, the release by Wikileaks of 92,000 reports on the war in Afghanistan hardly merits the hype offered by the Web site's founder. The archive is not comparable to the Pentagon Papers or the secret files of the East German Stasi secret police, as Julian Assange variously claimed on Sunday and Monday. Nor does it provide evidence for war crimes prosecutions -- though in making that assertion, Wikileaks' founder revealed his organization's antiwar agenda.

Rather, the Wikileaks material tends to fill out and confirm the narrative of Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009 that most Americans are already familiar with. The insurgency grew steadily stronger in those years, while U.S. and NATO forces suffered from insufficient resources. The Afghan government and army, and especially its police forces, were plagued with corruption. Pakistan's intelligence agency was suspected of maintaining links to the Taliban and even of supporting some terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan. And Afghan civilian casualties were a continual problem.

These were the main themes identified in the documents by the New York Times, the Guardian and Germany's Der Spiegel after weeks of review. They were also the main topics in media coverage of the war during that time, in congressional hearings and debate, and even in the accounts of the White House and the Pentagon. The archives, made up in large part of field reports about specific incidents, add detail and texture. But, as described by the news organizations, they hardly provide a secret history of the war or disclose previously unknown malfeasance.

The Times account of the documents focuses on reports of Pakistani contacts with the Taliban. But the Guardian's review concludes that much of that information is unreliable. The British newspaper in turn highlights what it says are 144 reported incidents in which Afghan civilians were killed or wounded by coalition forces. But the 195 deaths it counts in those episodes, though regrettable, do not constitute a shocking total for a four-year period.

The Obama administration harshly condemned the release of documents, saying they "could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security." But that, too, seemed an exaggeration. Both Wikileaks and the news organizations said they had withheld documents and other information that might endanger individuals. On the whole, the reports appear likely to add modestly to public understanding of the war. But they are not likely to change many minds.


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