Published on
The Sydney Morning Herald

Afghan War Logs: Weight of Pages, but the Best Is Yet to Come

Paul McGeough

Video grab from Rethink Afghanistan Part 4: Civilian Casualties

How big is big? Attempting to give the Afghan War Logs their place in history requires that this explosion of top secret documentation in the public domain be measured against the yardstick of the sensational 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, which changed the course of the Vietnam War.

That effort, which prompted Henry Kissinger to dub Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the papers, as the most dangerous man in America, was a paltry 7000 pages. But apart from revealing how badly the war in Vietnam was going, it also revealed one of Washington's dirtiest secrets: the US was carpet-bombing neighbouring Cambodia and Laos.

By comparison, the logs are enormous - a mind-boggling 92,201 military, intelligence and diplomatic documents - but a first skim by teams from The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel has revealed more of the grinding detail of Barack Obama's unwinnable war than it has uncovered unknown dimensions of the conflict.

That said, Washington is sweating, because WikiLeaks is preparing another tranche of 15,000 documents for release that reportedly include up to 10,000 cable messages from US embassies around the world on fraught issues such as arms deals, trade talks, covert meetings and unvarnished assessments of governments.

But already it can be said that the logs will be to Afghanistan what the Pentagon Papers were to Vietnam.

To date, the logs' single new revelation on the conduct of the war is that the Taliban appears to have heat-seeking, surface-to-air missiles - one of which brought down a US helicopter.

However, the logs' greater service to disclosure and transparency is the extent to which they reveal how the governments with troops in Afghanistan sanitise their public account of how badly the war has been going.

These are the raw accounts, soaked in the blood and sweat of combat, before they have been prettied up by the triage teams in the Washington and allied PR clinics. We knew there were civilian casualties, but not this many; we had heard of the secret CIA ground missions to assassinate Taliban leaders, now it is confirmed; we have had guarded reports on the use of unmanned drone aircraft in attacks on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, now the picture is fleshed out.

And with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, last week dropping another $US500 million ($558 million) on Washington's ally Pakistan, there is enough new dirt in the logs on Islamabad's two-timing with the Taliban to make Americans wonder who is getting the bang for their buck.

Washington and its forces on the ground are still recovering from the shock sacking in June of their Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal - and now this.

It makes no difference to the public understanding of the progress of the war that the most recent of the logs is dated December 2009. Their sheer weight on being dumped in the public arena will cement the sense of a war being lost and give rise to further demands that the troops be brought home.

Obama has been trying to wriggle out of the words he uttered last year which were read as a promise to start bringing troops home from Afghanistan in July next year.

With the release of the logs, the president has just lost a lot of wriggle room.

Ellsberg, a strategic analyst with the Rand Corp, famously concluded in his decision to leak the classified history of the Vietnam War: ''We weren't on the wrong side, we were the wrong side.''

At a February screening in Washington of the film The Most Dangerous Man in America, the now grandfatherly whistle-blower appealed for his contemporary equivalent in the US security establishment to take courage and hit the send button.

It seems his call was answered.

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