Not since the Pentagon Papers in 1971 has a leaked military document made such a splash. We're talking, of course, about the recent, unauthorized release of 92,000 classified military documents regarding America's prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.

Not since the Pentagon Papers in 1971 has a leaked military document made such a splash. We're talking, of course, about the recent, unauthorized release of 92,000 classified military documents regarding America's prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.


Nonetheless, Julian Assange, editor of the WikiLeaks website that published the material and handed it off to three other publications, including the New York Times, is no Daniel Ellsberg, and this is not quite the bombshell the Pentagon Papers were, despite Assange's best efforts at hyping it. Indeed, the latter detailed deliberate government attempts to mislead the American people about the conduct of the war in Vietnam. WikiLeaks' efforts largely reinforce what those who've been paying attention already knew about the challenges of Afghanistan, not contradicting official U.S. accounts so much as fleshing them out.


Moreover, the revelations cover six years, from January 2004 through December, 2009, when Afghanistan was still running second fiddle to Iraq, before President Obama implemented his surge strategy. That is what allowed Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., whose nation did not fare well in the documents, to say they "do not reflect the current on-ground realities." We'd hope not, though in the event they remain an accurate depiction, well, the war is not exactly going as portrayed. In the long annals of American history, so what else is new?


That does not make this ho-hum, as it does raise some alarming issues. In short, is this war winnable? Especially with partners that include an incompetent/corrupt Afghan government, a rag-tag security force that may not be trainable, and a supposed ally in Pakistan of highly questionable loyalty?


There are multiple concerns here:


- First is the leak itself. Releasing classified material is illegal, potentially a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, if not for WikiLeaks, an international organization based in Sweden, or for Assange, who is Australian, then for the original leaker(s), ostensibly American with Pentagon connections (U.S. authorities reportedly have a "person of interest"). "I'd like to see this material taken seriously and investigated, and new policies, if not prosecutions, result from it," Assange said among other, off-color comments that make us wonder about his true motives. The "prosecutions" he wants may not be the "prosecutions" he gets.


But is this a kind of treason? The U.S. government may have about as much success prosecuting the responsible party as it did Ellsberg, which is to say, none at all. Treasonous or not, you have to question the morality behind a document that specifically identifies dozens of Afghan civilians who have acted as U.S. informants, endangering their lives. The Times, at least, redacted those and any information it thought might compromise U.S. military operations. WikiLeaks says it withheld some 15,000 documents and tried to be sensitive to the safety of Afghan civilians and their families. Perhaps they have a different definition of sensitive in Sweden and Australia.


In any case, falling back on the public's right to know - and we're as big an advocate for that as anybody - is a stretch here in some critical respects, with ramifications for the way the U.S. military goes about its business, of particular interest to those who do not wish us well. The overall security of classified information is a concern here, as well.


- Second, our supposed ally in the war on terrorism, Pakistan, seems to be playing both sides of the fence here. Of specific concern are some all-too-cozy relationships between the Taliban and Pakistan's version of the CIA, the ISI.


- Third, Afghanistan's leadership remains a big obstacle. "The general view of the Afghans is that the current government is wors(e) than the Taliban," according to leaked testimony from a provincial council meeting of local Afghan leaders. "The corrupted government officials are a new concept brought to Afghanistan by the Americans."


Meanwhile, civilian casualties have been downplayed. Case in point were the 52 victims of a NATO strike this past week, most of them women and children who'd sought shelter from the fighting outside. We recognize that U.S. military personnel are in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation - asked to fight a war with one hand tied behind their backs, not on a designated battlefield but in a community where the enemy hides among the civilian population - but if it's true that this week's mistakes produce tomorrow's terrorists, well, we're not helping ourselves. Can the mission succeed in Afghanistan without the support of the locals?


Ultimately, the timing of this leak couldn't be much worse - or better, depending on your point of view - with the president seeking a $59 billion war bill to carry out his Afghanistan mission.


It's optimistic of Obama to believe this leak won't cause a rethinking of the war in many quarters, including among Democrats in Congress. David Obey of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has already said he won't be supporting the bill he's moving. "With all due respect, I think we need to do more nation-building here at home," said Congressman James McGovern of Massachusetts. Those attitudes reflect a war-weary nation, approaching a decade of spilling blood and treasure in faraway lands.


We have not changed our minds about Afghanistan. We're there because of 9-11-01. Given the political realities, we should be doing just enough to prevent another attack on the U.S. mainland, certainly not replicating the errors of the Soviets in the 1980s. Nation-building in a place that has no history of it may be the longest of long shots. Maybe the goal should be containment, not occupation, covert operations wherever the terrorists take us rather than prolonged combat in a specific place.


In the meantime, with the clock ticking on the president's withdrawal deadline, these leaks likely have not made his job, or our military's, any easier.


The Peoria, Ill., Journal Star