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WikiLeaks Proving A Political Bombshell In Pakistan

  • Abubakar Siddique

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and others have downplayed the significance of "Cablegate."

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and others have downplayed the significance of "Cablegate."

"Don't trust WikiLeaks," Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told journalists recently while discussing confidential U.S. diplomatic cables published by the whistle-blower site. The leaks, he said, are "the observations of junior diplomats."

But attempts by Gilani and others in Pakistan to downplay the significance of the WikiLeaks revelations belie the stir the WikiLeaks cables have raised.

For some key political and military leaders, the cables are an embarrassment, revealing sharp contrasts between what they tell U.S. diplomats in private and the views they present to the Pakistani public. Public outcry is reverberating on television talk shows and the front pages of newspapers.

The publication of one cable has set Pakistan's most powerful institution, the military, on its heels. The cable, by then-U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson in 2009, said that current military head, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, "hinted that he might, however reluctantly, have to persuade President Zardari to resign if the situation sharply deteriorates."

The revelation led military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas to offer assurances of the military's support for democracy.

"The army has a demonstrated policy of supporting the political process within the confines of the constitution of Pakistan," he said in a December 4 statement, adding that Kayani "holds all national leaders in esteem."

Political Damage?

Senior Pakistani politicians, meanwhile, have come under intense criticism after cables exposed their private discussions with U.S. diplomats. In November 2007, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a leading Islamist politician whose Jamiat Ulam-e Islam political party is publicly anti-Western, sought U.S. envoy's Patterson's backing for his bid to become prime minster.

His supporters have flatly denied having made any such requests. Abdul Jalil Jan, a senior leader of Jamiat Ulam-e Islam tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that there is no truth to what was reported in the cable.

"When we formed the MMA [Muttahida Majlis-e Amal] coalition government in the frontier province" -- now renamed as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa -- "we didn't ask for anybody's support. We only asked for Allah's help," Jan says. "Whenever the majority of people vote for Jamiat Ulam-e Islam, we can claim the prime minister's position. Then the U.S. would not be able to stop us from governing."

The cables hint at Saudi Arabia's deep influence in Pakistan, much of which is bought by petrodollars. An October 2008 cable purportedly from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh reads: "The Pakistanis are convinced that Saudi King Abdallah would prefer to see Pakistan run by former PM Nawas (Nawaz) Sharif, and were cutting back assistance to Pakistan to hasten this eventuality." The analysis, attributed to a senior Pakistani diplomat in Riyadh, adds that Nawaz is preferred in the kingdom because his daughter is married to a grandson of the late Saudi King Fahd, which makes him a member of the Saudi royal family.

But Khawaja Asif, a senior leader of the Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz rejects such assertions. Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, he characterizes them as an effort to sabotage relations between Islamabad and Riyad.

"What really matters to us is that how the Pakistani people view Nawaz Sahrif," Asif says. "With Allah's blessing, we are satisfied with that because they voted us to power in the [eastern] province of Punjab."

'Pettiness' And Plain Speaking

As the WikiLeaks uproar has unfolded, Pakistan's English-language daily "Dawn" has concluded that "the pettiness of a number of national leaders has been exposed." In an editorial published on December 3, the daily wrote: "More depressing, perhaps, is how most of Pakistan's civilian and military leaders appear to consider the U.S. envoy as some sort of viceroy who should be appealed to for domestic concerns."

The country's virulently anti-Western Urdu-language press sees conspiracy theories behind the leaked diplomatic correspondence.

"We should think [about] whether turning WikiLeaks into headlines on our front pages and TV screens is right? Apparently it is propaganda against the Muslim countries and by projecting it, aren't we becoming part of it? It will be best not to hype these revelations based on flawed information," daily "Express" opined on August 4.

Declan Walsh, Islamabad correspondent for "The Guardian" -- one of five media outlets with advance access to the cables -- notes that most Pakistani media coverage of the WikiLeaks revelations target what has been said about the country's civilian politicians and the deep divisions between civilian and military leaders. But Pakistani media has been silent on other critical issues highlighted in the secret diplomatic correspondence, he says.

"What we have not seen in Pakistan is a lot of debate about the other revelations of the WikiLeaks, which are, according to American diplomats and intelligence, the continuing links between Pakistan's military and selected Islamist militant groups in the region, such as the Haqqani group and the Afghan Taliban," Walsh says. "And according to American officials who are cited in the cables, they say that Pakistan is supporting these groups as part of a strategic hedge against India in the region."

Larry Robinson, who headed the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad between 2002 and 2005, says that the cables made public so far had no major surprises for people who seriously follow events in Pakistan. But the revelations are damaging and "seriously embarrassing to quite a large number of people in the near-term."

Robinson says that the real damage will be long-term. Due to fears that their conversations will be leaked, he suggests, few Pakistanis will now candidly speak to American diplomats. U.S. envoys, he says, will be very careful about what to report to Washington and might prefer to even avoid normal reporting channels, which might make State Department cables less useful to their immediate readers and future historians.

"What has been lost is the trust and integrity of the system and the ability to speak frankly," Robinson says.

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