WikiLeaks: For public, it confirms worst about Afghanistan

WikiLeaks documents in many respects paint a picture of a war going poorly. But they're unlikely to convince the public that the answer is to get out now.

Andrew Winning/Reuters
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks a news conference at the Frontline Club in London Wednesday. On Sunday, WikiLeaks released 92,000 classified documents on the war in Afghanistan.

If no public uproar followed Sunday’s WikiLeaks release of 92,000 classified documents on the war in Afghanistan, it’s largely because the records were more backup than bombshell, even if some have called the documents a “trove of information.”

This means that the leak is likely to reinforce perceptions – specifically, widespread skepticism about Afghanistan and about any prospects for a good outcome there, experts say. But at the same time, they add, the WikiLeaks affair is unlikely to convince the public that the answer is to get out now.

“Americans are really frustrated with the situation in Afghanistan, and this WikiLeaks story will probably increase that frustration. But it’s not going to flip opinion because the information looks like more of what they already knew,” says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). “The overall impression is that there’s nothing new.”

That public perception of the WikiLeaks documents was mirrored to some degree in Congress Tuesday: The House voted for a supplemental spending bill that includes $37 billion in funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Indeed, the passage of the war supplemental – the Senate had passed it earlier – was interpreted by some as a reflection of a broader public reaction to the leaked documents. That reaction goes: We already knew the war was going badly – which is why we’ve lost faith in it – but the troops shouldn’t bear the brunt of this disenchantment.

In some respects, the picture painted by the WikiLeaks documents – of a war going poorly and hampered by corrupt Afghan officials, ineffective Afghan security forces, and often duplicitous Pakistani intelligence operatives – was more of the same music for the church choir. All those challenges have already been digested by the American public, opinion analysts say, and the result has been poor public support for what is now a nine-year war.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 53 percent of Americans consider the war effort is not worth the costs. A CBS News poll found that virtually the same number – 54 percent – want a timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. The CBS poll found that only a third of Americans accept keeping US troops in Afghanistan more than two additional years.

That last finding reflects to some degree President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, announced last December, calling for 30,000 additional troops – for a total US deployment of about 100,000. The strategy is expected to culminate in the first steps of a US withdrawal, beginning in the summer of 2011.

Mr. Kull of PIPA says his reading of an array of recent surveys on Afghanistan and public opinion is that while few people are happy with the war’s results, the majority don’t see a good alternative to Mr. Obama’s plan.

“Those who want to leave faster or stay longer are pretty balanced on both ends,” he says. “But people are concerned about things like leaving a safe haven for Al Qaeda, so until someone proposes an alternative that addresses those concerns, public opinion won’t flip,” Kull says. The WikiLeaks documents, he adds, which are mostly raw field reports, offer nothing in the way of an alternative.

The Obama strategy – with an emphasis on counterinsurgency doctrine that favors personnel contact with local populations – is still in its implementation phase. This is one reason that the White House took the “it’s old news” approach to the WikiLeaks documents, some say.

“I suspect the White House decided that with the midterm elections coming up, the last thing they wanted was some major reassessment of Afghanistan policy. So the best course for them was to take the approach that this [information] was largely from before their time, from before Obama’s strategy,” says Michael Desch, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana who specializes in civilian-military relations. “That, and the fact that Gen. [David] Petraeus [the new US and NATO commander in Afghanistan] has just come on board, and they want to give him the time to put things in order as much as he can.”

Obama has promised a full review of Afghanistan policy in December, a year after he announced his strategy. But once the public has taken a certain course – in this case, that the war in Afghanistan is not worth the costs – it is hard to reverse it, public-opinion analysts say.

If anything, Mr. Desch says, sees another six months of the war bringing further deterioration of public support. But, he says, it won’t be because of new disclosures of how the war is going poorly.

“I expect the trend will continue towards more and more public skepticism,” he says. “But that increase will come as a function of time and additional casualties, and not because of WikiLeaks.”


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