Defence taskforce to examine leaked war files
Prime Minister Julia Gillard says the Defence Department has set up a special taskforce to scrutinise tens of thousands of leaked US military documents about the war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon is scrambling to unmask whoever leaked the classified documents to whistleblower organisation Wikileaks in one of the biggest security breaches in US military history.
The 91,000 classified documents, released by Wikileaks, paint a grim picture of the conflict and the apparent double-dealing of the Pakistan military.
Spanning a six-year period, they reveal details of assassination plots, field intelligence, Pakistan's alleged support for the Taliban and previously unreported civilian deaths.
Ms Gillard says Defence will examine the documents to see what the implications are for Australia, which has about 1,500 troops in Afghanistan.
"I obviously am concerned to see a national security-style material leak," she said.
Australia is mentioned in some of the documents, mostly in reports about how they have come under enemy fire.
One report from December 2009 says Australian forces came under fire from four insurgents and that one Australian was wounded in action.
Another report from 2008 says an Australian was wounded after coming under fire from an unknown number of insurgents.
Ms Gillard says under the caretaker conventions, Defence will brief both the Government and the Opposition on the findings.
More leaks to come
US defence officials say the mole appears to have had secret clearance.
They fear more leaks are possible, with the White House describing their disclosure as "illegal" and "alarming".
The leaks could have more of a political impact than operational one by raising new questions about the war strategy.
Yet while the Obama administration says it is outraged by the disclosure of the documents, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs is playing down their strategic impact, pointing out they mostly cover a period when George W Bush was president.
Reports that Pakistan's intelligence agency was helping the Taliban have been denied by Pakistan's ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani.
"Allegations of any arm of the Pakistani government collaborating or cooperating with the Taliban is absolutely wrong," he said.
"We all know it wouldn't make sense for us to help the Taliban who are killing our own soldiers and our own intelligence officers."
US president Barack Obama says he will review his Afghanistan policy at the end of the year.
'A bad acid trip'
James Carafano, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, has compared the revelations to the release of the Pentagon papers during the Vietnam War.
"I feel like I'm on a bad acid trip going back to the 1960s when we had the release of the Pentagon papers," he said.
"From a factual perspective it has the same problem as the Pentagon papers, it's a lot of documents without context and you don't know what other documents there are so ... it doesn't necessarily tell you much about the war.
"And of course the other is, it's looking backwards. In Vietnam, after the Pentagon papers we completely changed the strategy but nobody really cared, right?
"They already decided the war was unwinnable. And likewise here, we have a new strategy, we have new forces on the ground, so all this information on stuff pre-2009 or even earlier than 2009 may or may not be relevant.
"So in terms of drawing conclusions ... I'm not sure these documents are terribly useful."
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, says the political impact of the revelations could be more severe than the operational damage that has been done.
"The big headlines, it's not so much the detail but the additional information that we have about the difficulties that the war has confronted - that Pakistan is playing both sides of the equation, that the insurgents have at times had heat-seeking missiles, that the Afghan forces are really well below what NATO and the US would like," he said.
"So I think the report comes out at an awkward moment for Obama and his allies in Afghanistan, maybe because elite and public opinion is turning against the war.
"And this kind of information has the potential to further erode momentum and political support. So it's not that we have a great deal of new information, it's that we have more generally bad news."
Professor Kupchan says the leak could further heighten US public doubts about the war in Afghanistan.
"I think there is a moment of reckoning coming up, probably toward the end of 2010, beginning of 2011 when Obama and his allies need to make a tough call about where this war is heading, whether the surge has been working, whether the tide is turning and the Taliban and its extremist allies are starting to feel they are up against a force they can't deal with," he said.
"And this kind of release of information simply makes it more difficult for political leaders to sell the war to sceptical electorates."
A top NATO general is also calling for increased vigilance to thwart such security breaches.
But the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, says despite some legal issues, the questions the leaks raise are valid.
"However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan," he said.
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