The release of the Afghan War Diary has sparked a great deal of discussion, and rightly so. The Diary consists of over 90,000 internal US military documents, from 2004 to the present. The scale of the leak has prompted comparisons to Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which helped bring about the end of the War in Vietnam. Three kinds of comparisons can be made: the actual content, the reactions of the respective administrations to the leaks, and their effects on their respective wars.
In terms of content, there's really no comparison. The Afghan War Diary is nearly 190,000 pages longer, and consists mainly of low-level (though still top secret) tactical and field reports, documenting casualties, details of operations, etc. And, since they start in 2004, they do not provide details from the first three years of operations. The Pentagon Papers, on the other hand, were a detailed high-level study of Vietnam, its history going back to 1947, and the geopolitical benefits of the US having access to markets and resources there.
In terms of reaction, the Nixon administration tried to censor the New York Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers, a case in which Judge Gurfein ended up ruling in favor of the defendant. A book was published by Bantam Books, and the Papers were read by Senator Mike Gravel into the public record. Secretary of Defense Henry Kissinger characterized Ellsberg as "the most dangerous man in America", because his actions threatened national security.
So far, the Obama administration's attempts at damage control have taken two forms, suggesting that there is some level of administrative disarray in how to deal with this. The Washington Post summed up the first approach in an article headlined "White House, foreign allies downplay impact of classified document leak." The article quotes an unidentified "U.S. official" who said that "...there is not a lot new here." Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, Mohammed Sadiq, is quoted as saying "These allegations are always repeated ... I see nothing new." Wahid Omar, spokesman for Hamid Karzai, said "...most of this is not new."
The other approach warrants some comparison to the Pentagon Papers ordeal, and was expressed by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who called the leak "a breach of federal law", and warned that it may threaten national and operational security, and that of our allies. This point of view can currently be heard all over national radio and television, as experts debate whether or not having the documents available is a good thing. Unfortunately, this argument functions primarily to turn the general population against whistle-blowers and their actions, and to dissuade the population from "threatening national security" by reading parts of the Diary and making up their own minds. The possibility of the threat to our security is irrelevant, since nothing can be done now.
The Afghan War Diary may not provide evidence of the US's precise geopolitical goals of the War in Afghanistan, but it reveals that the US military has killed many Afghan civilians that it has not reported. Perhaps a more accurate body count can be established. The Diary also illustrates the extent to which the ISI (the Pakistani equivalent to the CIA) has been supplying and funding the Afghan insurgency against NATO occupation; incidentally, the US has provided tens of billions of dollars to fund the Pakistani government since 2001, in the fight against terrorism. The inconsistency here is astounding, and will hopefully be the focus of a great deal of investigation.
As for the effect on the Vietnam War, The Pentagon Papers showed that four administrations (Republican and Democrat) of American rulers had lied to the public about the objectives for the War in Vietnam. This generated a large amount of popular skepticism, and provided critical political leverage in bringing the Vietnam War to an end four years later. More generally, the Papers gave a much-needed view into actual United States foreign policy, including information on secret wars that were being conducted in next door in Cambodia and Laos.
The effect that the Afghan War Diary will have on the outcome of the War is up to us. If the documents really are old news, then they will be of little use to our opponents. The news about ISI funding of insurgents exposes either the tremendous hypocrisy or utter incompetence of the US Department of Defense, and as such provides some much-needed tactical leverage against the war. But even more crucially, the death tolls revealed in the Diary should lead to an increased moral opposition to the war on the part of the general population. These two revelations may provide the necessary political pressure to withdraw our troops from the country, and bring them home to safety. (If we're really concerned with the safety of our troops, we ought to consider this option.) But this will only happen if we exert this pressure against the Obama administration, since they have made it clear that they're in it for the long run.
The bottom line is, these documents provide invaluable insight into the the War in Afghanistan. We can choose to listen to the pundits who want us to be afraid of facts, or to use these facts to inform our own opinions.
afg-war-diary.html.7z: 74.5 mb
Uncompressed html files: 3.64 gb
Wikileaks has a lot of traffic. If it won't load, download the Diary here:
(I have verified this 7z archive, I know it works. If you receive an error message, try decompressing with a different program.)