Wikileaks on Afghanistan: What Did We Know and When Did We Know It?

When you went to bed Saturday night, did you know that the war in Afghanistan was going badly? I don’t mean, “Were you actually thinking about the war?” But if someone had bothered to ask you—if you had been cornered at a party by someone, say.

Or did you believe, before the WikiLeaks mass dump of 92,000 secret war reports , that nine years of warfare had moved the United States substantially closer to victory in Afghanistan? That the Taliban forces were on the run, that al-Qaida was being squeezed from its safe havens, that security and good government were spreading outward from Kabul, through the mountain passes, up into every remote corner of the country?

So what’s different today? The Afghan War Diary feels like a work of antithesis hunting for a thesis to oppose. There are things in it that are scandalous or meet the technical specifications of scandal: The reports confirm the existence and operations of a secret capture-or-kill squad , one which puts less emphasis on “capture” than the law would probably like. Many of the reports also pass along the news that everyone thinks the Pakistani intelligence service is helping out the Taliban .

The Pentagon Papers, today’s analogy of choice , revealed that American presidents had been lying blatantly and willfully about what we had been doing in Vietnam and why—that the whole war was being conducted in bad faith, from the top down.

The WikiLeaks report reveals that war is hell, and that war in Afghanistan is particularly hellish—that it kills little civilian children and big military purposes alike. Our allies are corrupt and incompetent. Our enemies are ruthless and effective. Sometimes our troops get outfought for meaningless patches of barren ground.

Is this an intolerable situation? We have been tolerating it for nine years. For every service member killed so far in Afghanistan, 49 were killed in Vietnam. The government doesn’t even seem to have been lying about it very hard. It didn’t want us to know that the enemy had gotten its hands on some anti-aircraft missiles, and it covered up civilian casualties, especially when the kill team was involved. But nobody has been on the radio telling us that our glorious success is at hand.

If anything, Afghanistan has been like the budget deficit. It’s out of control and a few people are upset about it, but mostly the public can get through the day without worrying about it. Someday we’ll worry harder about it. The spin we get is process spin, reassurances that we are on our way to getting off the completely wrong track, or at least that we will start heading in the wrong direction more slowly.

The WikiLeaks report, the White House noted, covers the time before President Obama launched a new Afghanistan strategy. A spokesman for the current president of Pakistan said that though people believed former president Pervez Musharraf was double-dealing, “we believe that era is over.” Pakistan believes that what people believe about Pakistan is no longer what it was. Meanwhile, over the border, something keeps going on.