While allied governments strove yesterday to downplay the import of the online posting of more than 75,000 classified documents about Nato's war in Afghanistan, the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, said they "only scratched the surface" and 15,000 more papers were still being reviewed.
The mere fact of so vast a collection of secret military missives, reports and memoranda surfacing for all to see on the internet sent a collective chill through Western capitals. The startling episode instantly evoked the Pentagon Papers, which were leaked in 1971 and became a catalyst for public opposition to the South-east Asian conflict.
The White House condemned the publication of the material saying it could threaten the lives of US personnel and other coalition troops. The Pentagon said it was studying the Afghan documents and it would be "days if not weeks" before it could determine the extent of the damage. In London, the Ministry of Defence said it was focusing on reports of civilian deaths allegedly involving British troops.
The Wikileaks revelations have hit at a time when public support for the war is at a low ebb on both sides of the Atlantic. Especially problematic will be those passages indicating the possible collusion between Pakistan's intelligence services and Taliban fighters, and the passage offering descriptions of collateral killings of civilians not previously reported by the authorities. The papers now on view span the period from January 2004 to December 2009.
Regarding civilian deaths, Mr Assange suggested war crimes may have been committed. "It's up to a court to decide, clearly, whether something is in the end a crime," he said at a press conference in London. "That said, there is a prima facie case, there does appear to be evidence of war crimes in this material."
However aides to the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, argued that the papers may not carry many surprises. "The President's initial reaction was: 'Look, this is nothing new'," Waheed Omar, his spokesman told reporters in Kabul. "Of course it is going to add to the awareness in the world of both these issues [civilian casualties and Pakistani collusion]. But there was nothing surprising in this."
As if to emphasise the point about civilian casualties, Mr Karzai's office announced that a weekend rocket attack had killed 52 people. According to witnesses, insurgents had told a number of villagers in Helmand province to flee their homes ahead of imminent fighting, only for Nato gunships to fire on them as they took cover several kilometres down the road. Nato said an investigation team was on site but that it had accounted for all the rounds its forces had fired without any suggestion that civilians had been hit.
Asked about possible collusion between Pakistan's spy agency and Afghan insurgents, Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said the US administration had always been candid about shortcomings in Pakistan's role but said progress had been made in persuading it to root out Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters. But he added: "Even as they make progress, we understand that the status quo is not acceptable."
The documents on Wikileaks include a report, for example, that the ISI, the Pakistan intelligence agency, in 2007 provided Jalaluddin Haqqani with 1,000 motorcycles to carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials reacted testily to the leaks. The documents do not "reflect the current on-ground realities", insisted Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador in Washington.
While no one last night had formally identified the source of the secret materials, Wikileaks said it was ready to help pay for the legal defence of an American army private, Bradley Manning, accused of providing it with a 2007 video of a gunship raid in Iraq that killed innocent civilians, as well as secret cables he allegedly downloaded while serving as an intelligence analyst in Iraq. Pte Manning is in custody in Kuwait.
The Pentagon probe of the papers was confirmed by spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan. "We will be looking at them to try to determine the potential damage to lives of our service members and our coalition partners, whether they reveal sources and methods and any potential damage to national security," he said. "It will take a matter of days if not weeks, again depending on how these documents are actually made available so that they can be reviewed."
The Ministry of Defence said it was examining every one of the 21 claims that British troops fired on Afghan civilians, including women and children. While the incidents make up only a small portion of the 369 civilian casualties listed on the war logs as caused by coalition troops, it states that at least 26 people – including 16 children – were killed by UK forces while another 20 were wounded. Some of the incidents have already been reported through the normal channels but last night the MoD said it would not discuss the issue further until a complete examination of all the cases had been conducted.