Frame Game

White House vs. WikiLeaks

U.S. officials rebut WikiLeaks and defend the Afghan war. Are they right?

WikiLeaks has struck the White House, releasing more than 90,000 raw reports and other documents from inside the Afghan war effort, mostly from troops and intelligence officers. Several themes in the documents are embarrassing: civilian casualties, Afghan corruption, Pakistani collusion with the Taliban. Now the White House is striking back. In a coordinated operation, National Security Adviser James Jones, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley have dismissed the leaked documents as old news that shouldn’t alter U.S. policy. Are their rebuttals persuasive? Let’s take a look.

1. There’s nothing new here. This is the administration’s main argument. At his press briefing yesterday, Gibbs repeatedly said there were no “broad new revelations” in the documents. Crowley said there were “no grand new revelations.” This is true, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains. But it’s also a dodge. Reports don’t have to be broad or grand to be sobering.

Gibbs compared the WikiLeaks documents unfavorably to the Pentagon Papers, noting that the former are “just on-the-ground reporting,” a bunch of “one-off documents about an operation here or an instance there.” That’s an odd way to belittle them in front of the press. On-the-ground reporting about an operation here and an instance there is how good journalists compile evidence of a war gone wrong.

Gibbs argued that in enumerating “our concerns in our relationship with Pakistan” and “the challenges that we face in Afghanistan, I do not know that you would list one thing differently today as a result of what we’ve read in these documents.” But so what? Reports on the ground seldom reveal a whole new category of trouble. They’re damning enough when they show that a known category of trouble is worse or more persistent than our government admits.

Consider a couple of the leaked documents. One describes a January 2009 meeting at which Gen. Hamid Gul, a former director of Pakistan’s intelligence service, reportedly helped al-Qaida operatives plan a suicide attack in Afghanistan and pledged a Pakistani “blind eye” to the operatives’ presence in Pakistan. Another describes a deadly December 2009 shootout between Afghan soldiers and police, prompted by “an altercation over a car accident.” Broad new revelations? No. Disturbing signs of treachery and chaos? You bet.

2. Things have changed since 2009. In Sunday’s statement, Jones argued:

The documents posted by Wikileaks reportedly cover a period of time from January 2004 to December 2009. On December 1, 2009, President Obama announced a new strategy with a substantial increase in resources for Afghanistan, and increased focus on al Qaeda and Taliban safe-havens in Pakistan, precisely because of the grave situation that had developed over several years.

Gibbs reinforced this point:

The documents purportedly cover from, I think, January of 2004 to December 2009. … When the President came into office in 2009, he, in the first few months, ordered an increase in the number of our troops … and then, as you well know, conducted a fairly comprehensive and painstaking review of our policy, which resulted in December 1, 2009’s speech about a new direction in Afghanistan. … The President was clear back in March of 2009 that there was no blank check for Pakistan, that Pakistan had to change the way it dealt with us, it had to make progress on safe havens. … On March 27, 2009, the President said, “After years of mixed results we will not and cannot provide a blank check.  Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.”

It’s true that Obama’s December 2009 speech coincides with the last month of the leaked documents. But there’s no reason to think the bad news stopped at that point. Let’s not pretend a speech by our president suddenly alters patterns of corruption and double-dealing half a world away. More likely, this was simply the temporal limit of the document trove to which the leaker had access.

Look at the statements from Jones and Gibbs. Both men talk about an infusion of resources under Obama. But American resources don’t address Afghan nepotism or ulterior Pakistani motives. And look at the time line. Gibbs touts Obama’s March 2009 warning to Pakistan. That’s nine months before the document dump ends. If Obama’s words didn’t stop the problems in March, why would they do so in December?

There’s a good argument to be made that something crucial has indeed changed in Pakistan. But that change didn’t come from us. It came from the Pakistani Taliban, who went after Islamabad and scared the Pakistani government into waging war on them as a mortal threat. Gibbs mentioned this but didn’t focus on it, probably because it doesn’t fit the narrative of Obama turning the war around.

3. We can’t permit another 9/11. U.S. officials are at their best when they don’t try to fudge the severity of the mess. This was the best line in Jones’ statement: “We know that serious challenges lie ahead, but if Afghanistan is permitted to slide backwards, we will again face a threat from violent extremist groups like al Qaeda who will have more space to plot and train.” And this was the best exchange at Gibbs’ press conference:

Question: But is America really safer?
Gibbs: I believe America is safer, because if we were not to be in this area … if the Taliban were to come and overthrow a government and create a safe haven that allowed al-Qaida and its extremist allies to not have to plot in a cave but sit in the open and plot the next September 11th, our country would be much, much more dangerous, a much greater target.

This has always been the truest and most persuasive answer to setbacks in Afghanistan: not that things are going swimmingly, but that they could get much, much worse. If you think we should pull out because the war is going poorly, you’ve forgotten what happened when the guys we’re fighting there ran the country: They came here and massacred us. Sometimes you fight wars not because victory seems likely but because the war will go on whether you like it or not, and it’s heading your way. In this case, unlike the case of Vietnam or Iraq, that threat is not hypothetical.

WikiLeaks says it released its secret documents to inform us. That’s fine. But sometimes the information you’re most in danger of overlooking has been staring you in the face all along. The worst incident report in the Afghan war is still the one from nine years ago, in which 3,000 Americans died. Don’t forget it.

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