The WikiLeaks Scoop on Afghanistan Will Transform the War

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Pakistani troops along the border with Afghanistan. Mohammad Sajjad / AP

This week is going to be all about Afghanistan.That's thanks to Wikileaks, an online depository for the kinds of documents that are not, under any circumstances, supposed to be publicly disclosed, much less posted on the Internet. Today the site has published some 92,000 U.S. classified government documents chronicling five years of the war in Afghanistan. As The New York Times puts it, they are, "a daily diary of an American-led force often starved for resources and attention as it struggled against an insurgency that grew larger, better coordinated and more deadly each year."

The White House has already attempted to downplay the revelations, which show that Pakistan's intelligence service has been playing a possibly more serious role supporting the Afghan Taliban than previously thought, contain details about coalition troops killing Afghan civilians, and reveal U.S. Special Forces operating outside of the NATO chain of command. A statement from National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones condemned the leak of classified information and said, "These irresponsible leaks will not impact our ongoing commitment to deepen our partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan; to defeat our common enemies; and to support the aspirations of the Afghan and Pakistani people."

Wikileaks multiplied the impact of the release—perhaps by an incalculable amount—by disclosing the documents weeks ago to three of the biggest Western news institutions: The New York TimesThe Guardian in London, and Der Spiegel in Germany. Each news outlet has taken a different tack and used varying judgments as to what to publishand what to censor.

As the documents spread, more revelations, patterns, and possibly even more disclosures will follow. Certainly there will be talk of this journalistic moment’s likeness to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Not only did an epic legal battle ensue, but the damning revelations of the war in Vietnam mark a sea change in the way that the American public viewed the war. If the revelations here are as consequential remains to be seen. And, of course, the Pentagon Papers were an official history ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. What we have here, instead, is granular, scattered dispatches from the ground, much of it clouded by the fog of war.

What's undeniable, however, is that President Obama's administration—already staggering after firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal and a withering war strategy—will now have to spend the entire week defending a war to an increasingly disenchanted American public.