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WikiLeaks disclosures unlikely to change course of Afghanistan war

By Greg Jaffe and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; A01

In the first 24 hours after the unauthorized release of more than 91,000 secret documents about the war in Afghanistan, a few things became clear to the officials, lawmakers and experts reading them:

-- New evidence that the war effort is plagued by unreliable Afghan and Pakistani partners seems unlikely to undermine fragile congressional support or force the Obama administration to shift strategy.

-- The disclosure of what are mostly battlefield updates does not appear to represent a major threat to national security or troops' safety, according to military officials.

-- The documents' release could compel President Obama to explain more forcefully the war's importance, military analysts said. Some have criticized Obama for not explaining the administration's strategy for bolstering the weak Afghan government and countering the Taliban's rise.

White House and Pentagon officials sought to diminish the significance of the leak by arguing that there were few, if any, revelations in the documents. Instead, they expressed alarm that the group WikiLeaks.org had posted such a large amount of classified material that could compromise the safety of U.S. forces and their Afghan allies.

"What is new and unprecedented is the scale and scope of this leak," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. "But the content of it is neither new or very illuminating."

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress called for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to open an investigation into the matter. Pakistani officials angrily dismissed as malicious rumors the leaked intelligence reports suggesting that their spy service was collaborating with the Taliban.

A large number of the secret documents were produced by low-level officers reporting on events in their sector at a time when the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating and the Taliban insurgency was gaining strength.

The flurry of hastily written documents provide a disturbing, disorienting and often incoherent history of the U.S. war effort from 2004 through last December, when Obama announced his new strategy for the country.

There are detailed accounts of Afghan civilian casualties. One report from 2007 chronicles a raid by helicopter-borne U.S. commandos in Paktika province that was aimed at killing an al-Qaeda commander. Instead, U.S. rockets killed seven children.

Other reports document apparently criminal behavior by Afghan government officials, including the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl by an Afghan police commander in the fall of 2009.

Then there are dozens of documents that revolve around rumors passed to U.S. forces by Afghan villagers or partners in the field. One such account suggested that Taliban fighters were planning to commandeer a truck carrying U.S. military food, inject the food with poison and smuggle the goods back onto a U.S. base. The food attack never happened.

"Most of these reports are seen by low-level staff and watch officers who collate, analyze and screen them before they make it to more senior staff," said one senior military official.

In the Pentagon, the huge disclosure of classified information prompted more concern about the leak itself than about the sensitivity of the information made public. The release of classified information was briefly mentioned at the early morning update for senior military officers with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but after about 90 seconds of discussion the officers quickly moved on to other matters, a military official said.

"For anyone who is looking at the war over time, the reports provide historical background," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But the problem is that they are historical. They are impressionistic accounts based on one incident at one moment in time."

One former senior intelligence official said the disclosure was "the equivalent of when we capture a computer hard drive and get to look at all the historical documents."

The former official added: "The fact that the information is old doesn't stop us from finding out how good these guys are, what they knew then, how that compares with what we knew."

Senior White House officials said the classified accounts bolstered Obama's decision in December to pour more troops and money into a war effort that had not received sufficient attention or resources from the Bush administration.

The United States has made significant progress in driving down the number of Afghan civilian casualties, a problem that appears repeatedly in the leaked reports. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan also is slowly improving, U.S. officials said.

But U.S. forces still face serious problems in working with the often corrupt and incompetent Afghan government. The Afghans' shortcomings are laid bare in the classified documents and mirror accounts in hundreds of recent newspaper articles.

"There hasn't been a sudden change in Afghanistan," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he advised senior U.S. commanders. "So far, there has been incremental and useful change. The basic strategic challenges of Afghanistan remain what they have been."

Obama has not delivered a major address on the Afghan war since his December speech announcing the new strategy. His statements have usually focused on the oil spill and plans for the faltering economy.

To sustain support over the long term for his counterinsurgency strategy, which isn't likely to produce sweeping improvements in the next year, the president will probably have to make the case that Afghanistan is worth the cost, a senior administration official acknowledged.

In the near term, the Obama administration seems intent on casting the voluminous leak as old news and ignoring it. The Pentagon similarly played down the need for safeguards to prevent future leaks of classified material.

"Once someone has a security clearance, you are supposed to trust them," said a senior U.S. military intelligence official. Thousands of military personnel and contractors had access to the field updates that constitute the bulk of the leaked documents, the official said.

The same dismissive attitude dominated the national security think tanks in Washington where analysts closely follow the war. By Monday afternoon, most of these experts had given up on searching through the huge WikiLeaks database for new information.

Some gave up Sunday night.

"I'm going to bed, but if I were to stay up late reading more, here is what I suspect I would discover," Andrew Exum, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security, wrote on Sunday night. " 'Afghanistan' has four syllables . . . LeBron is going to the Heat. . . . Liberace was gay.' "

Staff writer Michael D. Shear and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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