It seems inevitable that the body of classified documents on the Afghanistan war released Sunday by the website WikiLeaks would be compared to the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War divulged by Pentagon dissident Daniel Ellsberg in 1971.
To start off, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been profuse in his comparisons of the two sets of documents, and others have followed suit: For example, Newsweek speaks of “The Pentagon Papers, Redux.”
But in many ways, WikiLeaks’ 92,000 Afghanistan documents are no Pentagon Papers.
In the first place, the Pentagon Papers revealed how the US government had been trying to deceive the public by holding back information and offering a whitewashed version of the Vietnam conflict’s history and evolution.
In the case of the Afghanistan documents, on the other hand, much of the information to be gleaned from the thousands of ground-level reports was already well substantiated: from Pakistan’s collusion with the Afghanistan Taliban to the damage done by civilian casualties that were caused by the Western alliance.
In addition, the WikiLeaks documents span a period of time (2004-2009) that the Obama administration reviewed extensively before the president announced his Afghanistan strategy in December 2009. The Obama White House appears to have adjusted Afghanistan policy – ranging from a sharper focus on protecting civilian lives to demanding a cutoff of Pakistani double-dealing – in ways that responded to the kinds of problems revealed by the divulged documents.
The key variable: public opinion
In one important way, however, the WikiLeaks documents may indeed end up mirroring the earlier leak: Just as the Pentagon Papers played a role in cementing mainstream public opposition to the Vietnam War, the latest leak could end up further turning an already disenchanted public against the war in Afghanistan.
That reality had already been seized upon by some members of Congress by Monday afternoon – though with differing interpretations.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, a longtime opponent of the US military presence in Afghanistan, says the picture painted by the WikiLeaks documents should alert the US public further to the need for a new direction in Afghanistan.
"While I do not condone the leaking of classified material, these documents underscore what we already knew – the policies we have been pursuing in the region under both the Bush and Obama administrations are based on a deeply flawed strategy,” he said in a statement. “We need a new strategy, beginning with a timetable to draw down our troops from Afghanistan, so we are better able to accomplish our top national security priority of destroying al Qaeda’s global network."
On the other hand, Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, in his own statement, warns Americans that the very purpose of the WikiLeaks disclosures is to turn the public against the war. He called WikiLeaks “an organization with an ideological agenda that is implacably hostile to our military and the most basic requirements of our national security.” He added, “Americans and our allies should be wary of drawing conclusions based on materials selectively leaked by Wikileaks, as it seeks to sap support for the Afghan war among the American people and our European allies.”
How will Obama respond?
But perhaps the ultimate test of whether the WikiLeaks documents ever really become a 21st-century Pentagon Papers will come in the Obama administration’s long-term response to the leak.
The Nixon White House fell back on its worst instincts to battle the leak of information exemplified by the Pentagon Papers, taking a path that ultimately led to the Watergate scandal and a president’s downfall.
So far, the Obama White House has condemned the leaking of classified information, with National Security Adviser James Jones asserting in a statement that “these irresponsible leaks will not impact our ongoing commitment to deepen our partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan ... and to support the aspirations of the Afghan and Pakistani people.”
If administration action stops there, the comparisons to the Pentagon Papers are likely to die out.