afghan war documents put pressure on Obama
Strategy faces scrutiny after grim portrait of U.S. effort
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.