Monday, July 26, 2010

The Pentagon Papers Redux

With eerie echoes of 1971, when the leak of secret files confirmed what Americans had long suspected about the disastrous war in Vietnam, the unauthorized release of 92,000 classified documents provides a first-hand picture of its 21st century counterpart in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Back then, the Pentagon Papers marked the beginning of the end in Southeast Asia, amid a swirl of legal battles over government secrecy and the rights of a free press to report what officials were hiding.

Now, the documents made public by WikiLeaks, according to the New York Times, provide "an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal," showing "in mosaic detail why, after the United States has spent almost $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001."

In Vietnam, LBJ's official fiction was that American blood and treasure there were preventing the spread of Communism in a Domino Theory, hiding the more realistic motive of avoiding a humiliating defeat, which was only delayed by Nixon duplicity for four more years.

In Afghanistan, Bush's war on terrorism, adopted and expanded by Obama, is proving even more dubious as the new documents confirm "strong suspicions that Pakistan’s military spy service has guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington for its help combating the militants."

The coming days will bring a howling argument over "media treason" in reporting on secret documents, just as the Pentagon Papers did four decades ago, but the simple fact back then was that telling the American people the truth helped to turn public opinion against a bad war.

Now, as then, nothing is more important than that.

Update: The White House points out that Wikileaks is "not an objective news organization" and notes that most of the memos predate the Obama presidency as National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones "strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security."

All this is par for the course but, in the coming days, the inescapable fact is that Afghanistan is a disaster that Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, sums up:

"The not succeeding and is not worth waging in this way. The time has come to scale back U.S. objectives and sharply reduce U.S. involvement on the ground. Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources. The sooner we accept that Afghanistan is less a problem to be fixed than a situation to be managed, the better."

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