Concern grew inside the White House yesterday that the release by Wikileaks of tens of thousands of documents painting a dark and disturbing picture of the conflict in Afghanistan risked further undermining support for Barack Obama's war strategy on Capitol Hill, across the country and even among America's Nato allies.
The revelations did not impede the passage last night of a new $60bn war funding bill in Congress, which was approved by 308 votes to 114. But in a sign of worsening divisions among Democrats, the Wisconsin member who introduced the bill to the floor revealed his intention to vote against it. David Obey, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, complained that current strategy amounted to "a recruiting incentive for those who most want to do us ill".
Officials expressed alarm that the leaked papers might have put operatives on the ground in Afghanistan in danger. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was "appalled" by the leak and contended there "is a real potential threat there to put American lives at risk".
Appearing in the Rose Garden, President Obama reiterated concern about exposing people to danger while downplaying the wider political significance of the episode. "While I am concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardise individuals or operations, the fact is these documents don't reveal any issues that have not already informed our public debate," he said.
A similar message was sounded by John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I think it's important not to overhype or get excessively excited about the meaning of those documents," he said.
But with public support for the war fragile at best, some of what is exposed in the papers, ranging from previously unacknowledged killings of civilians to apparent evidence of collusion between the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, and Taliban fighters, seems certain to put pressure on Mr Obama to articulate his strategy more clearly.
The Pentagon said it was launching a "very robust investigation" into how the more than 90,000 documents were passed to Wikileaks. Officials said that 22-year-old private and army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who is already charged with passing information about Iraq to the website, is a "person of interest" for now. "He is someone we are looking at closely," said Colonel Dave Lapan.
Washington also prioritised reassuring Pakistan that allusions in the texts to contacts between its intelligence officers and insurgents would not damage relations. Officials in the White House reportedly warned the government in Islamabad about the likelihood of a difficult few days before the posting of the documents on Sunday.
Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, said that US concerns about Pakistan playing a double game in the region had eased in recent years. What emerges from the papers, which span a period from early 2004 to the end of last year, are "clearly out of step with where this relationship is now, and has been heading for some time," he said.
That the snap shots of the Afghan war do not go into this year is of some help to Mr Obama who made his last large strategy review at about the same time, significantly increasiong the troop presence on the ground. Referring to that strategy, the President said he had "insisted on greater accountability from our partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan". He added pointedly: "Now we have to see that strategy through."
Some analysts warned against underestimating the impact the leaks would have on public debate. "Whether Wikileaks uncovered anything new isn't actually important – it's on the front page of every newspaper in the country; the media is now focused on Afganistan and that makes it a big deal," argued Daniel Markey from the Council on Foreign Relations.
"The public is now more sceptical about the administration's strategy in Afghanistan than they were last week, and that makes it real."
Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, warned that the materials might be useful to the insurgents. "If I had gotten this trove on the Taliban or al-Qaida, I would have called it priceless," he said. "I would love to know what al-Qaida or the Taliban was thinking about a specific subject in 2007, for instance, because I could say they got that right and they got that wrong."
Among those expressing concern about the war was Republican Congresswoman Jane Harman. "This subject is hot and the President is going to have to say more" she said.Reuse content