The reams of classified military documents about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan leaked to The New York Times and British and German news organizations will weaken President Barack Obama’s ability to achieve his goals in that fractured country. That doesn’t mean leaking the documents was subversive. Nor does it mean that weakening U.S. resolve will doom the effort. In fact, it may tilt policy toward more realistic goals for the U.S., a positive outcome.
Two factors color these conclusions.
First, the war is now nearly 9 years old. In fact, it is the longest war in U.S. history. It has, by virtue of its length, generated a substantial historical record, a record that demands deeper scrutiny.
Second, the two themes that seem to be emerging from the 92,000 military reports collected by WikiLeaks, according to those who have reviewed them, are vital for U.S. policymakers to consider as they weigh the future of the war. Those themes are the missed opportunities for success in the early years of the conflict and the apparent ambivalence on the part of Pakistan to oppose the Taliban and al-Qaida.
The documents were generated in the period from January 2004 to December 2009. The U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003. As many have observed, including then-candidate Sen. Obama, the Bush administration focused its attention and resources on the Iraq military effort at the expense of its goals in Afghanistan. Returning to a focus in Afghanistan nine years after the 9-11 attacks is not possible, at least not with the same results.
Some U.S. troops now being deployed to Afghanistan were in middle school on Sept. 11, 2001. But the other side of that coin is that Afghanis who were 7 when the U.S. invaded are now 16. They have seen violence and destruction, and heard their elders grumble if not plot against the U.S. Those 16-year-olds may now be carrying weapons for the Taliban.
The leaked documents suggest that institutional corruption has set in, and that civilian deaths at the hands of the U.S. military, though accidental, have undermined success in winning hearts and minds. Taliban links to Pakistan, also suggested in the documents, are troubling. The U.S. may have become, in part because of the length of the conflict, an unwitting ruling power against which forces such as the Taliban and elements of Pakistani government push for political gain.
As the Iraq War begins to wind down, U.S. policymakers of both parties may find themselves trying to understand what the goal was in invading Afghanistan. Before 2001 was over, the Taliban had been driven from Kabul and Kandahar. Though President George W. Bush did not speak with a “Mission Accomplished” banner over his head, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told CNN on the one-year anniversary that “the Taliban are gone. The al-Qaida are gone.” That window in which the U.S. might have declared victory has closed. Different terms for describing victory are needed, but they must, the leaked documents suggest, be diminished from earlier goals.