Afghan leaks hand Obama new political nightmare
WASHINGTON (AFP) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Bombshell intelligence leaks on the Afghan war will likely deepen public pessimism over US hopes of victory and heighten President Barack Obama’s political exposure over the bleak conflict, analysts say.
The tens of thousands of leaked files have already added heat to slow boiling skepticism of Obama’s war strategy in Congress, including among Democrats, and will cement suspicion of imperfect ally Pakistan.
At first sight, accounts of an undermanned US force, tested by extreme battlefield conditions and for years saddled with an unclear strategy, validate many of Obama’s criticisms of his predecessor George W. Bush’s war effort.
But public opinion, faced with evidence suggesting that the war is being lost, is unlikely to make a distinction between the two administrations, analysts say.
“It makes Bush’s problems his problems. There is no way (Obama) can really separate himself from it,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history at Princeton University.
“People will have suspicions about what is going on now.”
The swift White House counter-attack, after the documents were unveiled by three news organizations on Sunday, suggested that Obama’s aides are acutely aware of the political peril.
National Security Advisor James Jones condemned the release of classified information and said Obama’s troop surge was directly tackling the “grave” situation revealed by the leaks.
The documents released by whistleblowers website Wikileaks, contain few huge revelations likely to hurt the administration on their own.
But they paint a picture of chaos in Afghanistan, suggest Pakistani agents helped the Taliban, detail grisly civilian deaths and desperate pleas for support from soldiers under ambush in a hostile land far from home.
The symbolic and political impact of the revelations may therefore be more severe than operational damage to exposed operations.
The White House will likely insist that Obama has no option but to prosecute the effort to deprive Al-Qaeda of an extremist haven to launch attacks — but also protect his political flank by repeating his desire to start bringing some troops home next year.
But those arguments may not sway restive opinion in Congress, which finances the war effort.
“However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
“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 more urgent.”
As Obama approaches an end-of-the-year review of US policy in Afghanistan, the leaks, selective as they are, may plague his dialogue with Americans over the war by presenting an alternative version of how things are going.
Both Obama and Bush have touted slow progress in Afghanistan, in an effort to maintain public support.
“It is an unfortunate fact that in the effort to control the message, the general result has been to spin the message, to try to constantly create a political climate of optimism and success,” said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“To basically not provide the kind of responsible overview of — ‘is this mission necessary? Can it be achieved? and what is the real level of progress?'”
Some experts believe the war is becoming a shadow over the Obama presidency.
Once again, White House hopes to stress his efforts to revive the economy and fight unemployment have been overtaken.
And debate over the war, from which Obama has little to gain, has already stifled talk of his big political win last week — the signing of new finance reform legislation.
“The political energy gets sucked out of your administration,” said Zelizer. “We are entering a politically difficult period for this president over the war.”
Amid the furor over the leaks, a huge irony is now becoming apparent — Obama is now as dependent on talismanic General David Petraeus for success in Afghanistan, as Bush once was in Iraq.
There will now be even more pressure on Petraeus, the new Afghan war commander, to demonstrate successes that show the 2004-2009 period covered by the leaks is a thing of the past.
But Obama’s plight over Afghanistan is profound, because he has few obvious options.
Should he maintain political support for a costly war where little progress is obvious, Obama will pay a sure political price — but if he mandates withdrawal, Republicans will brand him soft on terror.