Sobering sunlight



After last week's brain-dead distractions - notably, the faux Breitbart-Sherrod story that triggered yet another round of national name-calling ("Youse a racist!" "No, youse a racist!") - it's a perverse relief to begin a new week with a dominant story that is actually serious and substantive, particularly since it concerns the status and future of our war in Afghanistan.

The 92,000 classified military documents released yesterday by the antiwar website - and reported this morning by The New York Times and several western European newspapers after weeks of vetting and cross-checking - strongly suggest that the realities on the ground have been far worse than what the Washington spinners in two administrations served up to the public during the six years between 2004 and 2009.

I'm loathe to equate this leaked document dump with the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The Vietnam war convulsed America, if only because millions of American kids were exposed to the military draft. There is no equivalent uproar today; the war in Afghanistan is fought by exhausted volunteers, which makes it easier for the home-front folks to simply tune it out. But the Pentagon Papers and the Afghanistan papers have one trait in common: They both expose the sizable gap between the Washington version of events and the more sobering truths.

The Pentagon Papers (which were intended to be a secret in-house reexamination of a war gone bad, until they were leaked to the press by Pentagon aide Daniel Ellsberg) further galvanized the vocal antiwar constituency, especially on Capitol Hill; their publication, in The New York Times and The Washington Post, put additional pressure on President Richard Nixon to wind down our Vietnam involvement. Today, the posting of the Afghanistan papers may well expand the number of Americans who view the Afghanistan war as a waste of American lives and money - thereby making life even more miserable for the Obama administration as it seeks to prosecute that war.

Indeed, the timing of the release is fortuitous. This week, the House is slated to debate continued funding of the Afghanistan war; in all probability, the Afghanistan papers will exacerbate divisions within the House Democratic caucus, between the growing number of antiwar lawmakers and those who support President Obama's arguably ill-advised widening of the conflict. (House Republicans, meanwhile, are likely to simply condemn the leak - the identity of the leaker is unknown - while studiously ignoring the fact that the documents mostly cover the years when George W. Bush and his neoconservatives were fixated on Iraq, at the expense of the Afghanistan effort.)   

I won't detail the Afghanistan papers here. Actually, anyone closely following the press reports out of Afghanistan in recent years has surely heard about the problems we have encountered with our ostensible ally, Pakistan, the recipient of billions in U.S. aid. But the Afghanistan papers provide real-time confirmation of how Pakistani military spooks have often provided arms, money, and intel to the Afghan Taliban - who in turn have used those arms, money, and intel to kill American soldiers. The Pakistani spooks have also aided and abetted the suicide bomber networks that have proliferated inside Afghanistan since 2006; according to the newly released documents, some bombers were sent to disrupt the Afghanistan presidential election last August. This was the same presidential election that the U.S. hoped would bring clarity and credibility to Afghanistan's domestic politics. (Foreign policy maven Arthur Gelb explains here the reasons why Pakistan's priorities are different from ours.)

There is much else to ponder in the documents - the Taliban have been targeting our aircraft with heat-seeking missiles, the kind once used against the Soviets (a little detail not previously revealed to the public); the U.S. drones launched against the bad guys haven't been as effective as previously assumed; we're paying tax dollars to warlords who apparently facilitate drug trafficking - and, even  as we try to process all this info, we'll undoubtedly be distracted this week by commentators who'll insist that the release of such information is tantamount to treason, just as occurred in 1971 when the Pentagon Papers surfaced.

But that event nearly 40 years ago ultimately demonstrated that sunlight (however sobering) is still the best disinfectant in any democracy, and, similarly, the Afghanistan papers will ultimately sharpen the worthy debate over whether this particular war is the smartest use of troops and treasure.