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Documents leak leaves White House on defensive about Afghanistan policy

There are few bombshells, but the volume of data and the focus on the conduct of the war are likely to embolden critics at a time when Congress has expressed doubts about Obama's Afghanistan policy.

July 26, 2010|By David S. Cloud, Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — The leaking of a trove of U.S. documents has put the Obama administration on the defensive about its Afghanistan policy and may deepen doubts in Congress about prospects for turning around the faltering war effort.

The documents made public late Sunday by the website WikiLeaks included dozens of new disclosures about Pakistani intelligence agencies' assistance to Afghan insurgents, corruption in the U.S.-backed Kabul government, and incidences of U.S. troops accidentally killing civilians.

There were few bombshells in the reports, which were written by military and civilian officials in Afghanistan from 2004 to late 2009, during the George W. Bush administration and before President Obama ordered more than 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan as part of a new strategy aimed at turning around the war.

But the sheer volume of information and the focus on the conduct of the war were likely to embolden critics, increasing pressure on Obama to show results by the end of the year, when he has said he will review the strategy.

Most lawmakers reacted cautiously to the leaked documents. But members of Congress have increasingly questioned Obama's Afghanistan strategy in recent weeks, and a $37-billion funding bill for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has yet to pass.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), an opponent of Obama's decision to commit more troops last year, said the disclosures "make it clear that there is no military solution in Afghanistan."

Rep. Jane Harman, a Democrat from Venice who chairs a Homeland Security intelligence subcommittee, said the documents "reinforce the view that the war in Afghanistan is not going well."

Although experts saw little surprising in the reports, they offered vivid illustrations of corruption, waste and apparent duplicity that may resonate with ordinary Americans and further erode support for an increasingly unpopular war.

The power of the documents is in specific stories that could help opponents of the war make a case against it, said Kristin Lord, vice president of the Center for a New American Security. "I do think there could be some political fallout, purely because it will put the administration on the defensive," she said.

WikiLeaks orchestrated the disclosure for maximum effect, providing the database of documents to three publications — the New York Times, the German magazine Der Spiegel and Britain's Guardian newspaper — a month in advance.

The Obama administration did not try to dismiss the information. But Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said the leaks uncovered no important issues that have not already been brought to light. "There weren't any revelations in the material," he said.

Administration officials criticized WikiLeaks for disclosing classified information and attacked its motives. The site "is not an objective news outlet, but rather an organization that opposes U.S. policy in Afghanistan," said a White House official, who requested anonymity.

Republicans focused on the leak itself. Sen. John McCain of Arizona called the revelations "old news."

Officials said the Pentagon is investigating whether the source of the leak is Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old Army private who was charged in July with providing information to WikiLeaks, including video showing an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a Reuters journalist. Manning was charged with transmitting classified information and could face up to 52 years in prison.

The details of cases in which Western troops killed Afghan civilians were likely to gain broad attention in Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai has made civilian casualties a major issue. Karzai on Monday charged that rocket fire from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had killed up to 52 people in southern Afghanistan, an assertion not confirmed by local authorities and sharply disputed by the U.S.-led foreign forces.

Gibbs defended the Pakistani role in Afghanistan, even while acknowledging that Pakistan has not done all it can in battling militants.

"We understand that the status quo is not acceptable and we have to continue moving this relationship in the right direction," he said.

Several of the reports showed that U.S. commanders had specific information that Pakistan's spy service was helping Afghan insurgents.

The documents include several references to Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, who headed Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency from 1987 to 1989, when the CIA was working with Pakistan to fund Afghan guerillas fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

One report describes a meeting in South Waziristan on Jan. 5, 2009, just two weeks before Obama was inaugurated, to plot a suicide bombing. "Gul encouraged the … leaders to focus their operation inside of Afghanistan," the report says.

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