Bombshell intelligence leaks on the Afghan war will likely deepen public pessimism over US war aims 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 suggestions in the documents that the war is not being won, 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, and 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 any damage they might cause by exposing ongoing operations.
The White House however said Obama made his decisions about Afghanistan — after announcing his 30,000 troop surge strategy last year — based solely on what was right.
“The politics of all of this stuff will settle out regardless,” spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
“The question that the president asked himself and the question that the team asked themselves in making this decision is, What’s the right policy for this country?”
But those arguments may not sway restive opinion in Congress, which finances the war effort, and do not take into account the need to cultivate public opinion over the war.
“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.”
Obama, who will review his Afghan policy at the end of the year, faces the need to cultivate public opinion over the war.
“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.
Some experts believe the war is becoming a shadow over the Obama presidency as once again, White House hopes to stress his efforts to revive the economy and fight unemployment have been overtaken.
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.