ISLAMABAD: There has always been widespread dismay in Pakistan about unabashed US interference in the country’s internal matters. But the latest cache of American embassy cables leaked by WikiLeaks has laid bare the extent of the interference and involvement.
But more shocking are revelations about how much leverage the Americans were being given by the country’s civilian and military leadership to micro-manage domestic politics.
The global concern about the safety of the country’s nuclear arsenal, the presence of US special forces and elite counter-terrorism teams (courtesy Bob Woodward) were all old stuff for many here, but what definitely interests all are the views that various leaders espoused about each other and never shied away from sharing them with American diplomats.
The power wielded by the US is at its full display in the leaked cables that used less than diplomatic language to describe what was taking place in Islamabad’s echelons of power.
“We should help the Zardari/Gilani government complete its full five-year term in office” as it best served US interests, says one of the leaked communiques.
The political fallout from these leaks is imminent.
The presidency and the army’s general headquarters both clearly knew that they were not getting along well, but certainly they didn’t expect each other to wash the dirty linen before foreign diplomats.
At one point, a cable sent by the embassy talks about Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani forewarning then ambassador Anne Patterson about the likelihood of him removing President Asif Ali Zardari, if such a situation arose during PML-N-supported lawyers’ long march in March last year, and installing ANP leader Asfandyar Wali in his place.
“During ambassador’s fourth meeting in a week with Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Kayani on March 10, he again hinted that he might, however reluctantly, have to persuade President Zardari to resign if the situation sharply deteriorates. He mentioned Asfandyar Wali Khan as a possible replacement,” one of the cables reads.
The implied message in Gen Kayani’s contingency planning was immediately read by the ambassador as a plea to intervene and compel both parties to back down or else the army would play its role.
The general, at a later stage, told the American envoy that he was least interested in taking over and had he been, there was a good opportunity during the long march.
The general, whom the cables describe as a person difficult to understand and who tends to mumble, looked quite articulate when it came to expressing his opinions about political leaders.
“Kayani made it clear that regardless of how much he disliked Zardari, he distrusted Nawaz even more,” one of the cables says.
But, Gen Kayani was not alone in voicing his disenchantment with President Zardari who by virtue of his office is also the supreme commander of the armed forces.The president, in turn, could be seen complaining to the Americans that his army chief could oust him.
He is said to have confided in American Vice-President Joe Biden that “Kayani will take me out”.
President Zardari, in a meeting with the US ambassador, is said to have detailed out his plans if he were to be assassinated.
The president reportedly told Ms Patterson his sister Faryal Talpur would then be named president and that he had requested the United Arab Emirates government to take in his family in the event of his death.
Cables show Ms Talpur as one person about whom everyone had positive feelings. If President Zardari considered her the most suitable person to succeed him, embassy officers were very impressed with her and saw her as extremely energetic and well respected. More importantly, Kayani once told the ambassador that she would be a better president than her brother.
In a separate conversation, the president appears to be telling the then British foreign secretary David Miliband how the military and the ISI kept him in dark about critical information.
In a discussion on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, he said ‘my people’ had not brought specific information to him about the individuals named in the information passed to the ISI.
It was not only the civilian president and army chief pitted against each other. A reading of the leaked cables shows how President Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani worked at cross purposes.
President’s media coordinator Farah Naz Ispahani had confided to an American diplomat: “We are very unhappy with the way Gilani has gone off the reservation” while Mr Zardari was in China. She was referring to talks between Mr Gilani and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif without President Zardari’s blessings in the lead up to the long march.
But another cable noted that reports of Zardari-Gilani tensions were probably exaggerated and credited the prime minister for peaceful resolution of the judicial crisis.
Away from the political bickering, leaked cables show differences over critical foreign policy and security issues.
Gen Kayani in his conversations with American diplomats, the cables suggest, tried to pass the blame for an impasse on different issues like military action in Waziristan and start of back-channel talks with India to the president.
While Gen Kayani and ISI chief Gen Shuja Pasha informed the Americans about the resentment in the army ranks about alleged corruption and mis-governance by the president, one of the leaked documents expresses doubts if the army chief ever conveyed those concerns with the same seriousness to Mr Zardari.
The American ambassador opined that Gen Kayani shared the disquiet with her with the belief that the US had the most influence over President Zardari. This perception is confirmed in another diplomatic communication: “Zardari is our best ally in Pakistan right now.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Gilani and US Ambassador Cameron Munter tried to give an impression that the leaks wouldn’t hurt their relations much.
Ambassador Munter, who called on the prime minister, said: “Malicious WikiLeaks will not have any affect on the strong, strategic partnership between Pakistan and the USA, as both sides are resolute to address the misperceptions in the interest of long-term, cordial bilateral relations.”
Prime Minister Gilani said: “The government will ensure that Pakistan’s national interests are not compromised by such mischief in any manner.”
At a ceremony earlier in the day, Mr Munter said: “Working together, we will get past the WikiLeaks problems.”