afghan war doc­u­ments put pres­sure on Obama

Strat­egy faces scru­tiny af­ter grim por­trait of U.S. ef­fort

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By eric Sch­mitt and Helene Cooper

WASHINGTON — The White House sought to re­assert con­trol over the pub­lic de­bate on the Afghanistan war Mon­day as po­lit­i­cal re­ac­tion to the dis­clo­sure of a six-year ar­chive of clas­si­fied mil­i­tary doc­u­ments in­creased pres­sure on Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to de­fend his war strat­egy.

On Capi­tol Hill, a lead­ing Se­nate Demo­crat said the doc­u­ments, with their de­tailed ac­count of a war far­ing even more poorly than two ad­min­is­tra­tions had por­trayed, would in­ten­sify con­gres­sional scru­tiny of Obama’s pol­icy.

“Those poli­cies are at a crit­i­cal stage, and these doc­u­ments may very well un­der­score the stakes and make the cal­i­bra­tions needed to get the pol­icy right more ur­gent,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who leads the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee and has been an in­flu­en­tial sup­porter of the war.

The dis­clo­sures landed at a cru­cial moment. Be­cause of dif­fi­cul­ties on the ground and mount­ing ca­su­al­ties, the de­bate about the U.S. pres­ence in Afghanistan has be­gun

Con­tin­ued from A ear­lier than ex­pected. In­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion, more of­fi­cials are pri­vately ques­tion­ing the pol­icy. In Congress, the House could vote as early as to­day on a crit­i­cal war-fi­nanc­ing bill, the same day a Se­nate panel is set to hold a hear­ing on Obama’s choice to head the mil­i­tary’s Cen­tral Com­mand, Gen. James Mat­tis, who would over­see op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged that the doc­u­ments, re­leased on the In­ter­net by an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Wik­iLeaks, will make it harder for Obama as he tries to hang on to pub­lic and con­gres­sional sup­port un­til the end of the year, when he has sched­uled a re­view of the war ef­fort.

“We don’t know how to re­act,” one ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said Mon­day. “This ob­vi­ously puts Congress and the pub­lic in a bad mood.”

Obama is fac­ing a tough choice: He must fig­ure out a way to con­vince Congress and the Amer­i­can peo­ple that his war strat­egy re­mains on track and is bear­ing fruit — a harder sell given that the war is lag­ging — or move more quickly to a far more limited U.S. pres­ence.

As the de­bate over the war be­gins anew, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have been strik­ing tones sim­i­lar to the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s to ar­gue for con­tin­u­ing the cur­rent Afghanistan strat­egy, which calls for a sig­nif­i­cant troop buildup. In tes­ti­mony be­fore the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee two weeks ago, Richard Hol­brooke, Obama’s spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Afghanistan and Pak­istan, said the Afghan war ef­fort came down to a mat­ter of U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs struck a sim­i­lar note Mon­day in re­spond­ing to the doc­u­ments, which Wik­iLeaks made ac­ces­si­ble to The New York Times, the Bri­tish news­pa­per The Guardian and the Ger­man mag­a­zine Der Spiegel.

“We are in this re­gion of the world be­cause of what hap­pened on 9/11,” Gibbs said. “En­sur­ing that there is not a safe haven in Afghanistan by which attacks against this coun­try and coun­tries around the world can be planned. That’s why we’re there, and that’s why we’re go­ing to con­tinue to make progress on this re­la­tion­ship.”

Sev­eral ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials pri­vately expressed hope that they might be able to use the leaks, and their de­scrip­tion of a some­times du­plic­i­tous Pak­istani ally, to pres­sure the govern­ment of Pak­istan to co­op­er­ate more fully with the United States on coun­tert­er­ror­ism. The doc­u­ments seem to lay out rich new de­tails of con­nec­tions be­tween the Tal­iban and other mil­i­tant groups and Pak­istan’s main spy agency, the Di­rec­torate for In­terSer­vices In­tel­li­gence.

Three ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials sep­a­rately expressed hope that they might be able to use the doc­u­ments to gain lever­age in ef­forts to get more help from Pak­istan. Two of them raised the pos­si­bil­ity of warn­ing the Pak­ista­nis that con­gres­sional anger might threaten U.S. aid.

“This is now out in the open,” a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said. “It’s re­al­ity now. In some ways, it makes it eas­ier for us to tell the Pak­ista­nis that they have to help us.”

But much of the push­back from the White House over the past two days has been to stress that the con­nec­tion be­tween the Pak­istani spy ser­vice and the Tal­iban was well-known.

Pak­istan strongly de­nied sug­ges­tions that its mil­i­tary spy ser­vice has guided the Afghan in­sur­gency. A spokesman for Pres­i­dent Asif Ali Zar­dari said that Pak­istan re­mained “a part of a strate­gic al­liance of the United States in the fight against ter­ror­ism.”

A spokesman for Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai said that Karzai was not up­set by the doc­u­ments and did not think the pic­ture they painted was un­fair.

The White House ap­peared to be fo­cus­ing some of its ire to­ward Ju­lian As­sange, founder of Wik­iLeaks.org, the web­site that pro­vided ac­cess to about 92,000 se­cret mil­i­tary re­ports span­ning the pe­riod from Jan­uary 2004 through De­cem­ber 2009.

White House of­fi­cials emailed re­porters se­lect tran­scripts of an in­ter­view As­sange con­ducted with Der Spiegel, un­der­lin­ing the quo­ta­tions the White House ap­par­ently found most of­fen­sive, in­clud­ing, “I en­joy crush­ing bas­tards.”

At a news con­fer­ence in London on Mon­day, As­sange de­fended the re­lease of the doc­u­ments.

“I’d like to see this ma­te­rial taken se­ri­ously and in­ves­ti­gated, and new poli­cies, if not prose­cu­tions, re­sult from it,” he said.

The Times and the two other pub­li­ca­tions agreed not to dis­close any­thing that was likely to put lives at risk or jeop­ar­dize mil­i­tary or anti-ter­ror op­er­a­tions and redacted the names of Afghan in­for­mants and other del­i­cate in­for­ma­tion from the doc­u­ments it pub­lished. Wik­iLeaks said it with­held about 15,000 doc­u­ments for the same rea­son.

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