WikiLeaks or WikiYawn?
Is this the Second Coming of the Pentagon Papers? Will the WikiLeaks deluge of documents mark a turning point in the Afghan war?
“Massive leak of secret files exposes truth of occupation”, proclaims a headline in the Guardian. John Kerry says they raise significant questions about the conflict. The iconic Daniel Ellsberg himself says he was “very impressed by the release.” Pundits have been focusing on various elements that are mentioned in the papers, such as civilian deaths from American fire, Pakistan’s covert support of the Taliban even while they’re supposed to be fighting them, and the existence of an American special operations group to hunt down Taliban leaders.
Yet when even Mother Jones says the Wikileaks papers are no big deal, then perhaps there’s more smoke than fire here. The best commentary so far comes from counterinsurgency scholar Andrew Exum, whose reaction can be summed as: Dead civilians? Pakistani double-cross? Taliban leaders on a hit list? No kidding? What rock have you been living under?
The Pentagon Papers were a bombshell because they showed that the American government lied when it claimed to want peace in Southeast Asia, even as it escalated the Vietnam war. The snippets I’ve seen of the Afghanistan documents so far aren’t bombshells. They’re routine reports from American soldiers in the field. They mostly say that “we handed out goodies to the civilians. They still don’t like us. Our Afghan allies are a bunch of boobs.” These are not revelations to those who have been following the conflict. And those who don’t follow the war, which includes the majority of the American public, will not be galvanized. Dry bureaucratic reports don’t have the same impact as a video of helicopters strafing Iraqis.
If there is any good to come out of the Afghan and Iraq wars, it’s that any romantic illusions that war is precise and high-tech have been shredded. After nearly 10 years of fighting, we know that civilians die in war.
Unfortunately we have also become anesthetized to this. An after-action report of a botched commando raid that killed civilians isn’t gong to provoke mass protest. And perhaps it shouldn’t, because all wars have their share of stupidity and futility, which are usually documented somewhere in the vast military machine. The difference is that they are being revealed now by WikiLeaks instead of by some historian digging through archives 40 years later.
The WikiLeaks documents will provide ammunition for those who want us out of Afghanistan now. But the ammunition will mostly be blank, because Obama has laid down his Afghanistan policy, and like Johnson and Nixon, he will be reluctant to back out of it. So we will snort and snarl at the Wikileaks Papers. And the war will go on.