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US looks to downplay Afghan war documents

Leak "reveals nothing new", officials insist, adding that incident likened to the publication of the Pentagon Papers during Vietnam era is unlikely to influence military campaign.

NEW YORK // While the release of secret US military files on the whistleblower website WikiLeaks has been compared to the Pentagon Papers, which pre-empted the withdrawal of United States forces from Vietnam in the 1970s, this week's revelations already look unlikely to leave a similar political fallout.

The leaks come amid mounting concerns over President Barack Obama's game plan for the Afghanistan war, but many policy pundits agree that the data trove illustrates the difficulties faced there rather than providing information that will force the administration to shift strategy. WikiLeaks's revelations about civilian casualties and Pakistani support for insurgents in Afghanistan from more than 91,000 classified documents dating between 2004 and December 2009 are, in the words of many US officials and analysts, "nothing new".

This contrasts sharply to the Pentagon Papers, which were leaked to The New York Times in 1971 by a Rand Corp analyst, and lifted the lid on how successive presidents going back to Harry Truman had deliberately misled the American public on the Vietnam War. Senator John Kerry, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there was "no relationship whatsoever" between WikiLeaks's so-called "Afghan War Diary" and the explosive revelations from the Vietnam-era.

"I think it's important not to overhype or get excessively excited about the meaning of those documents," Mr Kerry said at a hearing on the nearly nine-year conflict yesterday. Sunday's leaks show a "very different pattern of involvement by the US government from that period of time". "People need to be very careful in evaluating what they read there," he added, underscoring that charges that Pakistani intelligence officials backed Afghan insurgents were "not new allegations". "This is something we have been dealing with and many people believe we have made some progress."

The classified documents cover events up to December 2009, when Mr Obama announced a new counterinsurgency strategy and troop surge intended to turn around a war that began in 2001 in retaliation for the September 11 attacks on the US. As well as providing field reports of botched military raids causing Afghan civilian deaths, they show current and former members of Pakistan's spy agency were actively collaborating with the Taliban in plotting attacks in Afghanistan.

Critics of the war have already cited the documents as evidence that the US war strategy would fail even with the 30,000 additional troops Mr Obama last December ordered to Afghanistan. Russell Feingold, a Democrat senator, said the disclosures "make it clear that there is no military solution in Afghanistan". The documents have also reinvigorated debate over US relations with Pakistan, with accusations that America's ally is helping the Taliban.

"The documents underscore the depth of Pakistani support [for the Taliban] and frustrations within the American military about that," said former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "This definitely makes it more complicated for the Obama administration." But Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert for the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, another think tank, urged Americans to understand that "Pakistan is internally divided in a national debate over what direction the country should take regarding militancy and extremism".

"If WikiLeaks actually influences US policy in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it will be because of the divisive policy debates already swirling in Washington today, not because there has been much in the way of significant new material evidence," he added. Many analysts agree that although WikiLeaks adds little to overall knowledge about the war, the disclosures will prove damaging to a president. US casualties continue to rise, fighting in the Kandahar region - the Taliban's stronghold - has been tougher than expected and the White House is still reeling after sacking its war commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, last month. Mr Obama is under pressure to show progress ahead of a planned policy review in December that will look at whether additional troops have made a difference.

"This administration has not yet clarified its core goals and the end state. Many Americans, particularly congressmen, are asking: how does this end?" said Brian Katulis, an analyst with the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. "You are seeing some stirrings of opposition, but as yet I don't see the architecture shaping up for a concerted anti-war effort." @Email:jreinl@thenational.ae

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