Wikistan and America

Written by Ali K. Chishti  •  Cover Stories  •  January 2011 PDF Print E-mail

A deluge of U.S. diplomatic cables has tarnished the reputation of Pakistan’s political and military leadership in the eyes of the country’s public, adding to anti-American sentiments in Pakistan. The situation post-WikiLeaks in Pakistan got so tense that the new American ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter personally had to take charge where he made a point of meeting all the stakeholders in Pakistan to apologize.

The dispatches, released by the WikiLeaks website, show military and civilian leaders agreeing to policies in private meetings with U.S. diplomats that they would passionately disavow in public. Among those damaged by the cables is Pakistan’s powerful military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who, according to the cables, would confide highly sensitive information to U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and use her to carry messages to his own political leadership. As they pored over the leaked cables, the Pakistani news media studiously ignored the other side of the story that emerges from the leaked communications: deep American frustration at Pakistan’s lack of cooperation.

Interestingly the politicians as compared to the military, post WikiLeaks came out victorious followed by a small media campaign from the presidency on asserting parliament supremacy which resulted in an ISPR clarification from the Army chief that, “the army respects all politicians and supports democracy.” In one missive, from September 2009, Patterson lamented that there’s “no chance” that Pakistan will stop funding certain Islamic extremist groups, no matter how much U.S. aid is doled out. Earlier that year, she’d concluded: “The relationship is one of co-dependency we grudgingly admit — Pakistan knows the U.S. cannot afford to walk away; the U.S. knows Pakistan cannot survive without our support.” Pakistanis see the cables in a distinctly different light, portraying both the government and opposition as fawningly pro-American and duplicitous.

Despite the alliance between Islamabad and Washington in fighting terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, public opinion is highly sensitive about encroachments on the nation’s sovereignty, and the cables provide evidence for those who hold to the conspiracy theory that the United States runs this country. The Pakistani media are portraying U.S. diplomats as hyperactive meddlers, constantly intriguing with Pakistan’s rulers to push Washington’s agenda.

The WikiLeaks documents also included a 2009 cable that discussed removing fissile material from a Pakistani nuclear reactor, an incendiary issue in a country where many think the U.S. aims to strip it of its nuclear capability. An issue which is super sensitive to all Pakistanis which cemented an average Pakistani’s concern that the United States is after Pakistani nukes. Another cable from 2009 has Patterson suggesting that Washington downplay allegations of extrajudicial killings by the Pakistani military to foster “goodwill within the Pakistan military and civilian establishment that can easily erode if too much public criticism from USG (U.S. government) officials over these incidents is forthcoming.”

Ignoring the crimes could be a breach of U.S. law, which prohibits funding foreign militaries that are guilty of gross human rights violations too. Pakistan’s leading politicians appear to share the belief that America is the ultimate power in their country. One ambitious contender, Fazl-ur-Rehman, the leader of a hard-line religious party that’s ostensibly anti-American, held a banquet for Patterson in 2007 to seek her help in becoming the next prime minister.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who’s publicly critical of the U.S., repeatedly assured U.S. diplomats behind closed doors of his pro-American feelings and thanked Patterson for the appointment of Kayani as Pakistani army chief. Patterson, who left Islamabad last month, was rarely out of the media spotlight in Pakistan, particularly in moments of domestic political tension, when she’d be seen ferrying among all the major players. She was the confidante and sometimes adviser to Pakistan’s leadership. Kayani divulged to her in March 2009 that he might oust President Asif Ali Zardari, while Zardari told her whom he wanted to succeed him if he were assassinated (his sister).

Kayani used Patterson to convey his concern to Zardari during the political crisis of March 2009; she met the army chief at least four times in one week. Zardari once told U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that he feared the military “might take me out.” The cables also disclose the clandestine operation of small numbers of U.S. special forces alongside Pakistani troops close to the Afghan border, described in an October 2009 cable as a “sea change in Pakistani thinking.” The Pakistani military and political leadership had pledged repeatedly that they’d never allow it.

The WikiLeaks documents also lay bare the Pakistani leadership’s acquiescence to the use of U.S. drone aircraft to target suspected militants in its tribal area, with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani telling the American ambassador: “We’ll protest in the National Assembly (parliament) and then ignore it.” Pakistani leaders, including Gilani, claim they’re pressing Washington to stop them. The prime minister described the leaks as “mischief,” while Zardari spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He told her that “the so-called leaks will not be allowed to cast a shadow on the strategic partnership between the two countries,” according to a statement from his office.

Conclusion: nobody comes out good from the WikiLeaks and although it has absolutely tarnished America’s image where the trust deficit between America and Pakistani has increased but the real victim of WikiLeaks is the fragile, civilian-military relationship which received a serious dent. The reality is that the military must subjugate itself to political control, not because they are necessarily wiser but because they are the elected representatives of the people and through them remain accountable. And it is only those who are elected by the people have the authority and the responsibility to decide the fate of a nation. WikiLeaks could have done the job for politicians in terms of parliamentary supremacy for now, only if they could play the right cards. 

Ali K. Chishti is a Karachi-based investigative journalist and writes on counter-terrorism issues.

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