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Afghan War Leak Stirs Intense U.S. Debate

In this U.S. military handout photo, U.S. Army soldiers from Provincial Reconstruction Team-Paktika walk down a street in Sharana, in Afghanistan's Paktika Province, in 2009.
As U.S. officials try to contain fallout from Wikileaks' release of reams of secret documents on the war in Afghanistan, U.S. pundits and the public are also having their say.

With doubts already mounting about the trajectory of the nine-year military campaign in Afghanistan, the new information could heighten American disillusionment.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs chose his words carefully when asked by a reporter to describe President Barack Obama's reaction to the leak. Gibbs characterized it as "more than 90,000 top secret documents which are against the law" to provide to reporters.

"I think it would be safe to say it's alarming to find them published on a website," he added.

The classified reports from the Afghan war, released on July 25 by the whistleblower website Wikileaks, exposes unreported civilian deaths as well as allegations of collusion between Pakistan's intelligence agency and the Taliban, among other sensitive revelations.

Meanwhile, "The New York Times" was reporting that leaders in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives were pressing for a vote on a key war-funding bill as soon as today, amid concerns that Democratic support for the war effort could ebb.

Skepticism All Around

While Gibbs said nothing more about Obama's reaction to the leak, the public was voicing its own take on the dramatic data dump.

With doubts already deepening about the success of U.S. policy in the war, the new information is showing signs of causing even more public disillusionment.

Still others chided Wikileaks for the release, as headlines across the United States tried to make sense of it all and the blogosphere buzzed with reactions.

"No news here," read one reader comment posted on the website of the "New York Times." "If you followed any myriad of blogs [by soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan] you would have known many years ago that this was war not winnable."

White House spokesman Gibbs largely agreed with the first half of that statement as he briefed reporters on July 26.

"I don't think that what is being reported hasn't, in many ways, been publicly discussed either by you all [reporters] or by representatives of the U.S. government for quite some time," Gibbs said.

But the "New York Times" letter writer was among many public commentators who saw the newly released information as confirmation that their skepticism about U.S. involvement in the war is correct.

A July 13 Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Americans believe that things are not going well for the United States in Afghanistan.

According to one "Washington Post" reader, the leaked reports are "an attempt to point out the truth which is that this nation is completely and totally wasting lives, tax dollars and our moral authority on our occupation of Afghanistan, which will end much like the Soviet occupation did no matter what general is installed at the top."

Echoing the sentiments of many of their readers, newspapers from the East Coast to the West Coast described the picture of the Afghan war painted by the leak as "grim" and "bleak."

One "Los Angeles Times" reader wrote, "If I knew that these wars would continue indefinitely, I would have voted [in the 2008 election] for John McCain."

Controversial Whistleblower

In some quarters, there was condemnation or the organization behind the leak, with a number of bloggers calling Wikileaks founder Julian Assange a "traitor."

A page on Facebook called "Shutdown Wikileaks" was created, apparently in response to the recent release. Its creator, who identifies himself as a member of the U.S. Air Force, posted: "They [at Wikileaks] promote freedom of speech, yet they endanger those who fight for it."

At the same time, membership on Facebook's Wikileaks supporters' page mushroomed to nearly 60,000, a number that has jumped markedly since the Afghan report leak.

David Streko, a former member of the U.S. Army, said he doesn't expect the leak to drive public consensus on the war.

"I just think that the people who are against the war now have some more ammunition to be against it and the people who are for it -- who don't want to criticize America -- are just going to blow this off. I don't think it's really going to sway or change anything," Streko told RFE/RL.

But if that remains the case, Streko acknowledges, those who question the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan will still be the majority.

Many readers and bloggers are anticipating the release of thousands more classified documents on the Afghan war that Wikileaks says it possesses. The documents already leaked are being described as the biggest revelation of classified reports in U.S. history.

More than one commentator has taken an ironic tack, describing the release of the Afghan files as a larger leak than the three-month-long gush of oil from a BP well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Rising Voices?

The powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, was the first in Congress to respond, and he did so with a direct challenge to the administration.

"However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan," Kerry's statement said. "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."

His words could have political consequences for Obama, who has faced increasing criticism over the lack of progress in the war. The U.S. president's next review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is set for December.

Political analysts interpreted Kerry's comments as signaling that he might hold hearings on the reports.

Less obviously, they say, might be his message to the White House that it needs to directly address the failings the reports have uncovered.