Why Haven't the Afghanistan Papers Gotten More Attention?Breaking News
tags: foreign policy, Afghanistan, Washington Post, Pentagon, Afghanistan Papers
Dr. David V. Gioe is Assistant Professor of History at West Point and History Fellow for the Army Cyber Institute. He is a Navy Veteran and a former Central Intelligence Agency operations officer. This analysis is his own and does not necessarily reflect that of the US Military Academy, the, Department of Defense or the United States government.
On Dec. 9, 2019, the Washington Post released to great fanfare what it presumably hoped would be a bombshell along the lines of the New York Times’s explosive “Pentagon Papers,” published in 1971, and indeed framed the coverage as such. Their so-called “Afghanistan Papers” (note the similarity in the nomenclature) were internal documents produced by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) as part of their ongoing documentation project to identify lessons learned during the war. In the documents, senior military and civilian government officials revealed in retrospect their unvarnished doubts and candid frustrations about the war during interviews with the SIGAR—an agency the primary purpose of which is to eliminate corruption and duplicative U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Along with the story, the Post released the original documents and a 17-minute video explanation.
Although some journalists were quick to embrace the Washington Post’s characterization of its reporting as “new Pentagon papers,” like New Year’s Eve fireworks, after a bright flare, everything was as it had been by the following day. It seems clear, more than a month after they were first published, that the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers were a resounding dud. While Congress did call Special Inspector General John Sopko to testify on Jan. 15 about the troubling details revealed in the documents, the Washington Post was the only major newspaper to cover the testimony. This is not to say that the Post’s reporting is unimportant or that it is better not to have access to the primary source documents that they secured legally. As a historian, I will be the first to welcome newly declassified documents as a window to understanding how the U.S. government assessed and grappled with its longest war. But what explains the lack of broader interest on the part of the American people? Why didn’t this trove of declassified documents catch fire like the Pentagon Papers during Vietnam, or like the more recent documents pilfered by Chelsea Manning and published by WikiLeaks in 2010, or the Snowden files published by several outlets in 2013?
Surely there are some obvious, and rather shallow, answers that can offer a rough idea of why the story vanished from the front pages and social media so quickly, including the competing media coverage of the impeachment proceedings and the Democratic presidential primary debates. However, this post will identify deeper reasons why the Washington Post’s story was not the revelation nor bombshell that they likely wished for. As historians Richard Neustadt and Earnest May warned in their book about using historical analogies, there is peril in misapplying historical parallels to contemporary situations. Although Neustadt and May wrote primarily for policymakers and wonks, their observations are equally as important for the Fourth Estate. In the present case, trying to tee up the story as the Pentagon Papers of the post-9/11 era relied on too many inaccurate historical parallels in which the differences outweigh the similarities. To understand why the story did not seem to have staying power, it’s worth exploring some commonalities and contrasts between the Pentagon Papers and the Afghanistan Papers.
To remind readers, the Pentagon Papers—officially the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force”—chronicled America’s increasing political and military involvement in (and around) Vietnam between 1945 and 1967. They revealed a glaring disconnect between the Johnson administration’s public rhetoric about America’s reasons for fighting in Vietnam—that is, guaranteeing South Vietnamese freedom and supporting allies—and the reasons the U.S. government actually decided to remain engaged—that is, to avoid a humiliating defeat and, to a lesser extent, to contain China. In the Pentagon Papers, some Pentagon analysts assessed that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, but the study and resulting report were classified, presumably so that its bleak conclusions would not become public. Daniel Ellsberg, an analyst assigned to work on the study, believed that its conclusions should be made public. He unsuccessfully tried several avenues to make them public before ultimately giving those conclusions to the New York Times. Ellsberg’s name is now synonymous with “whistleblower,” and he is often invoked as the original Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, although the latter pair are certainly not whistleblowers, a legal category of people who report perceived wrongdoing through various appropriate channels and enjoy protections for doing so. In contrast, leakers, like Ellsberg, Manning and Snowden, elide the channels set out for them and faced—to varying degrees—criminal consequences. As will be observed in the analysis below, document provenance matters.