NEW YORK // The 92,000 secret US military files on the Afghan war leaked to WikiLeaks may have been short of startling revelations but the reverberations will be felt for some time on the White House to the soldiers on the ground, said military analysts. President Barack Obama downplayed the leak's significance on Tuesday, saying it would not force a rethink of the troubled war's strategy. But, in the long run, the negative image that the documents revealed was likely to lead to further erosion in public support for the war and possibly embolden disaffected military personnel to reveal more secrets, the analysts said. In the short term, troops might be put at risk.
The documents present a detailed picture of the difficulties faced by the US-led coalition, raised more questions about ties between ostensible US ally Pakistan and the Taliban, and seemingly showed Iranian efforts to add to the destabilisation of Afghanistan. "While I'm concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardise individuals or operations, the fact is these documents don't reveal any issues that haven't already informed our public debate on Afghanistan," the president told reporters on Tuesday. "Indeed, they point to the same challenges that led me to conduct an extensive review of our policy last fall."
The secret documents date from 2004 to December 2009, before Mr Obama's counter-insurgency strategy took hold. One of the strongest condemnations of the leak came from the American Legion, which represents 2.5 million veterans. "As the old saying goes, 'loose lips sink ships' but today's sad reality is that the World Wide Web can lead to worldwide mayhem if certain websites do not practice better discretion," Clarence Hill, the legion's national commander, said in a statement .
He said penalties for revealing classified information were high because it could "clearly put our service people and our national security at risk. We don't get to decide which documents are likely to do so. It is a crime to reveal classified information." Mr Hill urged the government to "enforce the law". WikiLeaks and the media given some 76,000 documents in advance of Sunday's publication - The New York Times, Britain's The Guardian and Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, said they did not reveal any documents that could disclose the identities of informants or anyone else who could be harmed by their being made public. WikiLeaks said it was still examining another 15,000 Afghan war documents.
Peter Mansoor, a retired army colonel, a former adviser to Gen David Patraeus in Iraq and now a military history professor at Ohio State University, said in a worst-case scenario, journalists and researchers might have missed names embedded in some of the documents. At the least, the Taliban would be able to analyse more accurately how the US conducted operations and use the information to their advantage.
"The leak puts at risk our ability to keep information classified. If people in the military think they are going to be published, there might be problems down the line in what they report," Mr Mansoor said. Caroline Wadhams, the director for South Asian security studies at the Centre for American Progress, a think tank whose leadership has ties to the Obama administration, said the leak could jeopardise lives because it would be possible to work out "who was in the room" when certain information was exchanged and reveal the identity of informants.
Neither she nor Mr Mansoor believed the leak would affect troop morale, but it could add pressure on the US administration to prove the efficacy of the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, where Mr Obama has dispatched an extra 30,000 troops. Democrats in the House of Representatives only reluctantly voted yesterday for a bill containing a measure to pay US$33 billion (Dh121bn) for the new troops, with some congressmen questioning the war while economic conditions remained tough in the United States.
Congress has now allotted more than $1 trillion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr Mansoor said the president should give a major address to explain to the American public that the Afghan war was necessary to prevent a Taliban takeover, allowing the county to be used again as a base for terrorism. Counterterrorism operations, such as air strikes, would not work, he said. Ms Wadhams said she had not given up on the Afghan war ultimately providing some stability to the beleaguered country but she hoped the Obama administration was exerting enough pressure on the Karzai government to lead the country in an open and accountable way.
"I don't see any significant impact of the leaks on the military's approach but it feeds into the anti-war narrative and sentiment, which was already growing in terms of congressional opposition and in Nato capitals around the world," she said. "I'm not ready to give up yet and pulling out would raise serious moral questions in terms of what would happen to the Afghan people." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org