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Opinion: WikiLeaks Is Afghan Version of Pentagon Papers

Jul 26, 2010 – 9:41 AM
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Paul Wachter

Paul Wachter Contributor

(July 26) -- The similarities cannot be overlooked. President Lyndon Johnson did not start America's involvement in Vietnam -- John F. Kennedy did that -- but Johnson inherited a war and then escalated it. So, too, with President Barack Obama and Afghanistan. And then, as now, it didn't take the leaking of classified Pentagon documents to alert the honest observer to troubles with the American war effort.

By 1971, when the Pentagon Papers -- the Defense Department's study of American involvement with Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 -- first appeared to the public on the pages of The New York Times, President Richard Nixon was in the White House, promising to draw down American forces and pursue "Vietnamization," to build up South Vietnam's army so it could defend itself. What the Pentagon Papers demonstrated was the mendacity of the war effort's engineers, revealing the unreported expansion of the conflict into Laos and Cambodia and Johnson's main reason for pushing on: to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat.

In 2004, Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon's report to The New York Times and other papers, told blogger Steve Clemons that he hoped for a sequel of sorts -- that "a bureaucrat or soldier or spy would eventually take out of his or her safe the several-feet-thick pile of classified files on America's 'war on terror' and put them out to the public."

Now, that has happened courtesy of WikiLeaks, which has shared more than 91,000 classified reports concerning the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel were given early looks.

We still have yet to learn who passed the reports to WikiLeaks, but the Obama administration, just like Nixon's, is decrying the disclosure. The similarities go on. Just as with Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, some of the revelations being discussed today only confirm prior reports and suspicions: Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, is supporting al-Qaida and other anti-American elements in Afghanistan; hundreds of civilian deaths have gone unreported. And, as happened after the release of the Pentagon Papers, it's the fact that the White House knows these things and pushes on in Afghanistan nonetheless that may wind up finally galvanizing the country against the war.

Of course, there is one key distinction that may see the current war stumble on: Unlike during Vietnam, there's no draft. Our volunteer military is largely poor and disproportionately African American, and, especially in a bad economy, presented as an attractive job option. In contrast, the anti-Vietnam movement was sparked largely by middle-class and upper-class Americans who refused to go to Vietnam and the well-connected parents who didn't want their children to die. Many of those who did go, like Sen. John Kerry, returned disillusioned and driven to speak out.

The WikiLeaks document dump will dominate the news this week, if not longer. Meanwhile, more Americans and Afghans will be killed in Afghanistan. Like Nixon, Obama has pledged troop withdrawals, which he says will begin in July 2011 -- or three years ahead of when Afghanistan's propped-up president, Hamid Karzai, has said he hopes Afghan forces can take charge of the country's security. It's Vietnamization all over again, and just as likely to be an utter failure.
Filed under: Opinion
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