Documents leak leaves White House on defensive about Afghanistan policy
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.
The documents accuse Gul, who is retired but maintains close contact with Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, of recruiting suicide bombers at madrasas near Peshawar and ferrying them across the border to Afghanistan.
The allegations drew angry denials from officials in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
“These are farfetched and skewed reports, evidently inconsistent with on-the-ground reality,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit. “If anything, these reports betray a lack of understanding of the complexities of the nations involved. And these reports cast a poor light on the constructive role Pakistan is playing in achieving stability in Afghanistan.”
U.S. officials have long privately acknowledged their concerns that ISI personnel had ties to militants, and a delegation headed by National Security Advisor James L. Jones went to Islamabad in May in part to pressure Pakistani officials to sever ISI ties with insurgents.
But in public, both the Bush and Obama administrations have tended to play down ISI links to the Taliban and other militant groups.
The WikiLeaks documents also suggest Iran has given stronger support to Afghan insurgents than has been officially acknowledged. In March, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Iran’s support for militants “so far, as best we can tell, has been pretty limited” and “not a major problem for us.”
But a report from March 2009, for instance, claims that “several Taliban commanders” and about 100 fighters had crossed into Afghanistan from Iran to carry out attacks in Kabul, the Afghan capital. They had been ordered to do so by Taliban leaders in Pakistan, the document says. No further information was provided.
The leaked reports also reveal new information about insurgents’ capabilities and U.S. military mishaps.
In May 2007, one says, an American CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter was hit by what witnesses described as a heat-seeking surface-to-air missile, killing five Americans, a Briton and a Canadian. The Pentagon did not disclose in its public release about the incident that the helicopter may have been downed in an apparent surface-to-air missile strike.
The administration’s policies “are at a critical stage, and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Times staff writers Laura King in Kabul and Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad contributed to this report.