KARACHI: How minutely were the Americans involved in brokering the deal between former president Pervez Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto that resulted in her return from exile in 2007 after eight years? What was US diplomats’ take on the brazen militant attack on the General Headquarters (GHQ) on Oct 9, 2009, in which terrorists held several soldiers and others hostages for more than 18 hours? Did the Americans have any information on the alleged secret Swiss bank accounts of Pakistan’s political leaders? How did the US government assess the strategic implications of China’s involvement in Balochistan?
These are some of the questions that remain unanswered in the trove of secret US diplomatic cables accessed by Dawn through WikiLeaks. The absence of any significant communications dealing with these burning issues in Pakistan is astounding, especially since US diplomats seem to have sent voluble information back to Washington on a number of lesser issues.
The impact of avian influenza on Pakistan’s poultry industry and the country’s preparedness to deal with the virus, for example, formed the specific subject of no less than eight different cables in 2007 and 2008.
In contrast, not a single cable — of the almost 5,000 or so dealing with Pakistan made available to Dawn, the bulk of them from 2005 onwards — details US diplomats’ reaction or assessment of either the GHQ attack or the speculation surrounding off-shore bank accounts of the country’s current or former rulers.
The only references to China’s role in developing the port at Gwadar and its mining interests at Saindak are from publicly available information or, at most, reportage of Indian fears about China’s intentions.
Aside from the extremely unlikely possibility that the US Embassy simply did not comment on these widely discussed issues, there could be two other probable reasons for such information to be missing from The Pakistan Papers. One is that there are still some cables related to Pakistan in the 250,000-odd documents originally obtained by WikiLeaks that are not part of the files delivered to Dawn. The other, more likely, possibility is that communication on these issues was classified as “Top Secret”, a category of documents with a far more restricted access and which WikiLeaks was unable to get its hands on.
It may be recalled that the most secretive classification in the cables available with WikiLeaks is “Secret — NoForn”, which indicates that the contents of the secret cables are considered too sensitive to be shared even with other friendly foreign agencies and governments but which is still less than a “Top Secret” classification.
Lending credence to this last possibility, that at least some of the cables are in a super-secret category, is the material discussing the deal-making between Gen Musharraf and the late Ms Bhutto which led to the promulgation of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). The first reference to the back-channel contacts between the former president and the former two-time prime minister only crops up, in passing, in a cable dated July 24, 2007, discussing Pakistan’s fractured political landscape leading up to the presidential elections.
In that cable, then US Ambassador Anne W. Patterson reports that “Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto sent low-level PPP representatives to the APC [All Parties Conference], despite her presence in London, because of her continuing differences with the religious party alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA)… Bhutto’s lack of full participation signaled the irrelevancy of the APC and confirmed the suspicions of other opposition parties about PPP’s back-channel talks with President Musharraf”.
This is a rather late and mild reference to developments that ostensibly would have been of great interest to the Americans. A later cable from Dec 1, 2007, relates Ms Bhutto confirming to a US Congressional delegation that negotiations with Gen Musharraf had, in fact, continued for “8-10 months”. Various other cables confirm that the discussions were at their peak during the summer months immediately preceding the former president’s re-election bid in October. However, the US diplomatic cables accessed by Dawn often only refer to the “rumours of deals, accommodations and reconciliations” continuing to spread, without any apparent curiosity about what the deal entails or insider details about its progress.
A cable dated Aug 28, 2007, for example simply reports that Gen Musharraf had “dispatched Presidential Adviser Tariq Aziz and Presidential Chief of Staff Hamid Javaid to London for talks with Bhutto this week”. Another cable dated Sept 6, 2007, about the possible political fallout of exiled former premier Nawaz Sharif’s return, makes reference to the “long-awaited deal” between Gen Musharraf and Ms Bhutto.
“We believe that a public announcement of a Musharraf-Bhutto deal would go a long way toward lessening the downsides of Nawaz’s return and deflate whatever political influence he might have,” wrote Ms Patterson in a comment.
Clearer evidence that there was far more to certain events than what the current crop of documents divulge is provided by references to missing cables. Announcing Gen Musharraf’s signing, finally, of the “reconciliation package” with the PPP leader on Oct 5, 2007, — a day before the presidential elections — Ambassador Patterson refers to another cable (ID number Islamabad4309) which is not available in the current WikiLeaks collection. The same missing cable is cited as a reference in another dispatch reporting Ms Bhutto’s attempt to reclaim a National Assembly seat on her return.
Another reference to a missing cable can be seen in a communiqué discussing the Indo-Pak stand-off over the construction of the Baglihar Dam in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2005.
David Mulford, then US ambassador to India, in a cable dated Feb 25, 2005, commented on “Islamabad’s worst case scenario”, according to which water disputes had the “potential to destroy the peace process or even to lead to war”. However the cable (ID number Islamabad2264) which is referenced to further explain this comment, and which ostensibly elaborates on the issue, cannot be accessed from the collection of diplomatic cables available with WikiLeaks.
Questions can legitimately be raised about what exactly was contained in such communications for them to be deemed to be of greater secrecy. The speculation about American interests in Pakistan, it seems, is likely to continue.
Cables referenced: WikiLeaks # 27677, 116415, 120149, 121248, 124923, 132411.