The remarkable thing about the WikiLeaks documents is that they reinforce what we already know about the war in Afghanistan -- the lack of a credible partner, the links between Pakistani intelligence and the forces the U.S. is fighting, the difficulty in building the Afghan Army and police. Which means for all the complaints about the media these days, the coverage of Afghanistan has been broadly accurate. If the war is out of sight and out of mind for most Americans, it isn't because they aren't getting a good idea of what's going on over there.
The leaks may reinforce the idea that the administration's perspective is rosier than reality, but that isn't comparable to the Pentagon Papers revealing John F. Kennedy approved of the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, Lyndon Johnson flat-out lied about the war, or the fact that Richard Nixon had expanded operations into Cambodia and Laos. So far there isn't any previously undisclosed information in these documents that implicates the U.S. government in dishonest and illegal behavior the way the Pentagon Papers did.
I don't mean to underestimate the potential impact. If the documents cause Americans to re-evaluate the decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan and/or question whether the U.S. should be pursuing an alternate strategy, then they would have a comparable effect to that of the Pentagon Papers even if they don't ultimately expose a similar kind of malfeasance. The impact of the Afghan war on Americans simply hasn't been as broad because there hasn't been a draft. In the midst of an economic situation in which millions have been out of work for more than a year, I think most people find it difficult to focus on what's going on a world away.
We'll see. Adam Weinstein points out that most of the documents are simply mundane incident reports. I'm not sure why WikiLeaks released some of the documents they did completely
unredacted -- I think they would have retained whatever value they have, minus the names of intelligence sources. A former
military intelligence officer described the documents to me as "an
AQ/Taliban execution team's treasure trove."
When the Pentagon Papers were first released, Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, supposedly citing Donald Rumsfeld, said, "To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: you can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say, and you can't rely on their judgment. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong.''
I'm not sure that after George W. Bush Americans need another lesson on presidential fallibility. Ultimately, it's about what lessons people draw, if any, from the gobbledygook. It may be something similar to the ones people drew in 1971.