So what to make of the WikiLeaks story? First of all, it covers a period of several years; and there is no doubt that the United States and NATO didn't get everything right in all of those years, especially from 2004 to 2007. The two big stories -- ISI's fishing in troubled Afghan waters, and the deaths of civilians -- are not really news at all.
If the Department of Defense's leadership is to be believed -- and I for one, believe them -- Pakistan has put a lid on ISI. No doubt the Pakistani experience with its own Taliban gave the military and intelligence community something to think about. Equally, the Karzai government has gone out of its way to work with Islamabad, often to the chagrin of New Delhi. And no one denies that civilian loss of life, a by-product of every war ever fought, has diminished since General McChrystal issued new rules of engagement that themselves have frustrated many in the military (proving yet again that one cannot satisfy everyone -- would WikiLeaks have leaked disgruntlement with the new ROE's? I doubt it.)
The people behind WikiLeaks make no secret of their opposition to the Afghan war. Some would like to see American troops prosecuted as war criminals. WikiLeaks sees itself as providing the world with the Pentagon Papers Redux, though no one in his or her right mind could compare the Gulf of Tonkin incident that prompted the Vietnam War buildup with the destruction of the World Trade Center. That says more about the WikiLeaks crowd than about the sins their papers purport to reveal.
At the end of the day, the WikiLeaks papers will change few opinions. Those who want us out of Afghanistan will cite them ad nauseum; those who recognize the stakes for what they are -- the need to preclude that country from once again serving as a breeding ground for al Qaeda and their copycats -- will give them short shrift. What matters more is whether General Petraeus can affect the turnaround that made him a war hero in Iraq. If he does, the WikiLeaks papers will make good grist for historians' footnotes, and nothing more.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.