Nothing to see here. Move along.
That, in essence, was the message that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs offered Monday when asked about the 91,000 secret U.S. military Afghanistan battlefield reports that had been published online by the website WikiLeaks. "There weren't any new revelations in the material," Gibbs said. He repeated that phrase four times, with slight modifications, to drive home his point.
But for those like Gibbs, charged with maintaining the faltering political support for the war in Afghanistan, the revelations were hardly immaterial. Rather, they carried with them a familiar sense of déjà vu. From the beginning of the Obama Administration, White House staff have tried their best to handle Afghanistan with a sense of order and structure, a system of policy reviews and major public addresses. But events keep interceding to complicate the effort: an Afghan presidential election marred by fraud; an Afghan leadership that refuses to root out corruption; a commanding U.S. general whose carping to Rolling Stone forced a leadership shuffle; and now a major leak of secret cables showing all the warts of the war effort, from the specific botched operations that caused civilian casualties to the detailed concerns over Pakistani spies working with U.S. enemies.
The result, when combined with mounting monthly U.S. death tolls, has been rising discontent, both within Congress and the general public. A recent national Bloomberg poll found that 58% of Americans considered the war effort a "lost cause," while Gallup has tracked a steady increase in the percentage of Americans who believe sending U.S. forces to Afghanistan in 2001 was a mistake, from 30% when Obama took office to 38% today.
In the Senate, a key White House ally on the Foreign Relations Committee, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, embraced the released documents as anything but immaterial to the ongoing debate over U.S. policy. "However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan," Kerry announced in a statement.
In the House, where Democratic leadership planned a final vote this week on a bill to fund the war in Afghanistan and on a resolution calling for withdrawal, liberals similarly voiced alarm in the wake of the documents' release, using the moment to restate their desire for a quicker withdrawal of troops. "These documents are heartbreaking but not surprising and show us once again that the Afghanistan war is using up our troops in an unwinnable war," said California Democrat Lynn Woolsey in a statement to TIME. "Civilian casualties, covert death squads and cover-ups undermine rather than advance our national security objectives."
In 2006, when the war in Iraq was faltering as an election approached, then President George W. Bush sought to delay any serious debate over military strategy until after voters went to the polls. Months later he announced an entirely new approach, the so-called surge. Three and a half years later, Obama advisers have designated December, a month after the midterm elections, as the next point at which the Administration will conduct a full review of strategic progress. Obama officials have been dismissing criticism in the interim as premature. "We're in the process of implementing that new strategy, evaluating that new strategy and moving forward," said Gibbs at the Monday briefing.
Yet once again, events are likely to intervene. To begin with, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said he has at least 15,000 more documents set for release once they are redacted to exclude information that could jeopardize specific sources. Kerry, meanwhile, has planned a series of hearings in September to review the war effort and recommend improvements, including ways to limit corruption in the Afghan government.
In a press conference Monday morning in London, WikiLeaks' Assange, a critic of the war in Afghanistan whom the White House tried hard to discredit after the documents' release, said he hoped the documents would change the course of the conflict. "It's clear that it will shape an understanding of what the past six years of war have always been like and that the course of the war needs to change," he said.
It is still too soon to know the impact of Assange's trove of secret files, most of which were still inaccessible to the public on Monday because of heavy traffic to the WikiLeaks website. But one thing is clear: the files have continued a long trend of throwing President Obama off message on his signature foreign-policy initiative. After all, by arguing that the documents contain no new revelations, Gibbs was also making a troubling confession of sorts: the news from Afghanistan has been negative for a while, and there are still no signs of a turning point.
With reporting by Jay Newton-Small / Washington