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Not the Pentagon Papers

The release of classified documents on the Afghanistan war by Wikileaks to three major newspapers has been compared to the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret study of US Vietnam War. But this is an inaccurate comparison: in fact, the differences between the two whistle-blowing incidents highlight how today’s Wikileaks story is much less meaningful in political terms, and less likely to shift views on US involvement in the war.

The “Pentagon Papers” was the unofficial name given to United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense. The report was commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967, and it was published the following year. Daniel Ellsberg, a contributor to the study, leaked its contents to the New York Times in 1971.

The first major difference between the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks Afghanistan documents is given away by a word in the official title – that it is a “study”. The Papers are a historical study of US political and military involvement in Vietnam. It is an analytical work of synthesis, reflecting the views of senior officials and policy-makers.

In contrast, the Wikileaks documents are a massive dump of undigested, raw reports. They are from the field, generally from low-level military operatives. As Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post notes, it is hard to make anything out of: "At 1850Z, TF 2-2 using PREDATOR (UAV) PID insurgents emplacing IEDs at 41R PR 9243 0202, 2.7km NW of FOB Hutal, Kandahar. TF 2-2 using PREDATOR engaged with 1x Hellfire missile resulting in 1x INS KIA and 1x INS WIA. ISAF tracking #12-374." Applebaum says that Wikileaks inadvertently has proven the need for the mainstream media, in order to interpret this gobblydegook. But even when we learn from the New York Times that this means “Predator drone firing a missile at men who were planting roadside bombs”, it still remains a fragment of information.

Wikileaks' Julian Assange stresses the scale of the releases – some 92,000 documents – as impressive evidence of their importance. By that yardstick, the Pentagon Papers are unworthy, given that they are less than a tenth of the size at 7,000 pages. But the size of the Wikileaks pile is actually an indication of how unsignificant they are, because they are a mass of information tidbits. They are not more than the sum of their parts.

Ellsberg himself has recently said that there are important differences between the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks documents, but both show “the absence of any good reason for why we’re there, what this war is being fought for.” Yet, on this point about the justification for war, there is more that separates than unites the Pentagon Papers and Wikileaks.

The Pentagon Papers directly addressed the question of the rationale for the war, based on input from those who were the decision-makers. When a Defense Department memo in the Papers revealed that 70% of the reason for continuing the presence was in order “to avoid a humiliating US defeat” and not “to help a friend”, it ran directly counter to the reason given publicly by the White House. Indeed, the Papers exposed President Lyndon Johnson as a liar, as he was secretly expanding the war while telling congress and the public that he was seeking to wind it down.

The Wikileaks Afghanistan documents are the opposite. Ellsberg is right that they do not provide a reason for occupying Afghanistan, but he’s ultimately wrong on the bigger picture, because the Wikileaks documents do not even attempt to provide a justification. Reading about the killing of civilians by Nato forces in the Wikileaks documents may lead someone to question why the US and other Western powers are there, but these reports were never intended to answer that question in the first place.

Another key difference between the two documents is their originality, or lack of. The Pentagon Papers were a true revelation, because such information was top-secret and had not been aired. In contrast, the Wikileaks material is really old news: it covers the 2004-2009 period, and at best it is confirmation of what has long been discussed. This fact has made it relatively easy for the Obama administration to dismiss the Wikileaks documents as out-of-date.

More importantly, as Brendan O’Neill has pointed out on spiked, the nature of the Wikileaks reports means that they do not pose a political challenge to the war. Just highlighting how the war is not going well for the West is not a reason in itself to stop it. If the war is just and the ends are worth fighting for, then the logical conclusion would be to improve the prosecution of it, not simply withdraw. And indeed, that is the Obama administration’s easy deflection: their revised strategy, announced in late 2009, came after the events described in the Wikileaks documents, they argue, and is precisely intended to deal with such issues. Wikileaks, in fact, is putting its hope that the establishment will take a defeatist view: that by simply highlighting how the war is proceeding badly that the West will just surrender and go home.

Wikileaks’ lack of political challenge to the Afghanistan war is in tune with the general lack of opposition or interest in the war. American liberals, in particular, have not got worked up about opposing the Afghanistan war the way they did about Iraq: it turns out that their principles extend only to complaining about wars prosecuted by Republicans. During the 2008 election they were quite willing to overlook Obama’s warmongering rhetoric on Afghanistan in all their excitement about electing him.

This depoliticized environment means that the Wikileaks’ revelations will not have the same impact as the Pentagon Papers. The Papers are rightly credited with being a major turning point regarding support for the war, with street protests and congressional hearings following. That response is quite understandable, given that they revealed that the war’s executors were lying about the reason for the war. Moreover, the Papers were disclosed in the midst of a strong anti-war current.

Announced with a big bang internationally, the Wikileaks materials are already starting to be understood in a more sober way, as most come to recognize that there’s no real news, and the public remains largely uninterested in the war. Don’t hold your breath for street protests. Some have noted that Afghanistan has not had the same public reaction as Vietnam because the direct impact and scale of the two wars differ:  for example, 1,000 American troops have died in Afghanistan, versus 58,000 in Vietnam at the time that the Papers were publicized. However, the varying responses have more to do with vastly different political contexts: Wikileaks is not a direct challenge to the war, and there is not a strong anti-war current in the West today.

We should have a debate about the rationale for fighting the war in Afghanistan. The Wikileaks documents are not a bombshell akin to the Pentagon Papers that will force the kind of discussion we need; they are, in fact, a distraction from that kind of fundamental review. Moreover, the defeatism inherent in the Wikileaks approach is not a strong basis for arguing against the war in Afghanistan.

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