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From WikiLeaks to PakiWeaks

December 03, 2010

WIKILEAKS has vindicated at least one American diplomat: Anne Patterson. The recent US ambassador to Pakistan comes across as one sharp cookie, learning quickly on the job, and soon enough cutting through much of the fog of Pakistani politics and security to get to the bottom lines.

Sometimes the outside observer can tell a lot more about a place than those immersed in it for long years. And so it is that Patterson hones in on many truths.

My personal favourite, her comment about the Pakistani psyche after Nawaz Sharif thanked the Americans for ‘selecting’ Kayani: “The fact that a former prime minister believes the US could control the appointment of Pakistan’s chief of army staff speaks volumes about the myth of American influence here.”

But there is another little passage in a cable in the run-up to the lawyers’ long march last year which is remarkably revealing, and perhaps goes to the heart of what is the problem in Pakistan:

“Kayani hinted at disquiet among his corps commanders who believe Zardari is corrupt and has not been paying enough attention to Pakistan’s economic and security challenges…. Kayani told ambassador he has talked directly to Zardari, but he does not appear to have conveyed the seriousness of army concerns about Zardari or the security situation vis-à-vis the march. (Note: Kayani may be seeking to avoid a confrontation that would prompt Zardari to make a disastrous decision to try and oust the COAS.)”

The last sentence is, if you think about it, quite amazing. Here is the US ambassador to Pakistan musing about the possibility that if the Pakistan army chief told the Pakistani president what he thought of the said president, the president may try and sack the COAS, historically and unquestionably the most powerful office in the country.

That’s your transition to democracy right there, that’s how tenuous this whole thing really is.

The great myth about Pakistan is that someone is in fact in charge of this place, a puppet master up above pulling strings at will. But everywhere you look, you find principals who are often uncertain themselves, groping around in the dark, searching for answers.

Sure, some institutions and offices and personalities and power centres are more powerful than others. Had push come to shove in March 2009, it’s more likely than not Kayani would have emerged victorious. But there’s no swagger evident reading Patterson’s account.

Instead, we get a picture of a general distinctly uncomfortable. He needs to go to someone else he thinks has the ability to counsel Zardari. The reason is obvious: powerful as the army chief may be, the president had the power to hurt him.

If there is little doubt Kayani could vanquish Zardari, there is also little doubt a victorious Kayani would have immediately been engulfed by all sorts of problems: being sucked into the vortex of politics for one; having to defend yet another derailment of the democratic project for another.

A few days later, Kayani did directly intervene, but only once it became apparent Sharif had the numbers on his side and that tens of thousands of people were certain to converge on Pindi and then Islamabad in a matter of hours.

Ex post it may seem, Ah, of course, that was what was going to happen in the end anyway. But ex ante, before the event, the uncertainty is palpable.

Various power centres with differing interests competing for power, some centres more powerful than others, but none so powerful as to always dictate the course of history — that, more than a great puppet master at home or abroad choreographing the dance of chaos, is what best describes power politics in Pakistan.

Anne Patterson took less than three years to figure it out. Pakistanis are on their 64th and counting.

Two other details lost in the WikiLeaks frenzy come courtesy a political sparring partner. They both point to a very scary thought, one few here appear to be aware of let alone concerned by: the increasing isolation of Pakistan in the international community.

“In the Russian view, there is another serious threat that should be discussed: Pakistan. Pakistan is a nation with nuclear weapons, various delivery systems and a domestic situation that is highly unstable. Russia assesses that Islamists are not only seeking power in Pakistan but are also trying to get their hands on nuclear materials.”

Ummm, so now the Russians think we are verging on basket-case, too?

“[Leslie Mariot, UK foreign office official] noted that the Chinese had ‘pretty much’ said a year ago that if the US ratifies the CTBT, China would follow suit. Further, China has ‘dumped’ Pakistan in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), which is a ‘good sign’. Tauscher urged P5 action to get Pakistan to stop blocking progress in the CD on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).”

Ummm, so our ‘best friend’ China has ‘dumped’ us on an issue the army considers vital to our national security?

(An FMCT would prevent Pakistan from producing more raw material for nuclear bombs, something the army believes would undermine our ‘credible minimum deterrence’ against India.)

Wasn’t in just the West, the ‘Muslim-hating’ West, that was supposed to be all worried about Pakistan? How are we managing to simultaneously alarm the Russians and lose the support of the Chinese too, then?

It ought to be alarming stuff. But then most of us are preoccupied with the foibles of Zardari, Sharif and the other jesters who dot this unfortunate land.

For whom the bells tolls? It tolls for thee.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com