Pandora’s box

Published December 31, 2011

When a subset of the WikiLeaks cables were made public, Pakistanis realised just how extensively, and regularly, they are hoodwinked by those in power. —Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan
When a subset of the WikiLeaks cables were made public, Pakistanis realised just how extensively, and regularly, they are hoodwinked by those in power. —Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan

WikiLeaks has been a thorn in the side of even relatively transparent governments. For Pakistan’s politicians and its security establishment — people accustomed to running the country from behind closed doors — the public deconstruction of their doublespeak was unlike anything they had had to deal with before. This year WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange provided Dawn and The Hindustan Times with almost 5,000 Pakistan-related American State Department cables. When a subset of these were made public in May, months before WikiLeaks published its entire treasure trove of global cables, Pakistanis realised just how extensively, and regularly, they are hoodwinked by those in power.

The first day of publication saw two explosive revelations. Army chief Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani had himself asked for US drone cover in Pakistan (though likely for surveillance, not strikes). And Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leaders had informed the Americans that, behind the party’s loud insistence in 2009 on the restoration of the Musharraf-deposed chief justice, it wasn’t Iftikhar Chaudhry, or the principle, they really cared about. Ways would be found to remove him or clip his powers once they had scored the requisite political points through a “face-saving” restoration of the CJ.

Both disclosures were shocking for their distance from the public positions of players as important as Gen Kayani and Nawaz Sharif. They brought forth denials from the military and PML-N, but by then it was little more than a game of he-said, she-said.

Discounting the theory that the Americans stationed in Pakistan were inventing conversations to entertain their colleagues in Washington, there wasn’t much either the khakis or the politicians could do to counter the perception that had been created of hypocrisy at the highest levels.

Theoretically the duplicity should have come as no surprise. But seeing in print the difference between words that had been uttered in public and those that were freely offered behind closed doors led to an embarrassing few days for some people as cables turned into fodder for television talk shows.

More revelations followed, both about the conduct of our military and politicos at home and the involvement of foreign countries in domestic affairs: Operations had been carried out by American troops on the ground in Pakistan. The Pakistani government felt it was being kept in the dark about US military funding that went directly to the army. Awami National Party politicians said in private that the military was supporting the Haqqani network.

Aside from the duplicity that marked many of these cables, another eye-opener was how frequently Pakistani VIPs relied on the United States and, unexpectedly for many Pakistanis, how often the US tried to avoid playing the role of messenger or lobbyist between them. Rather, it took a bemused view of the mudslinging, strategising and hypocrisy it was given the chance to view within the confines of gilded drawing rooms and US consulates. “Shahbaz Sharif is very hardworking,” late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer told one US official, “but so is my maali.” The JUI-F asked for US help in pressing the government to negotiate with the Taliban. “The definition of moral turpitude in Pakistan remains cloudy,” former American ambassador Anne Patterson wryly observed.

Ultimately, given the short memories and brazenness of most Pakistani leaders, it is unclear how much lasting change these disclosures achieved. The organisation has now leaked all quarter-of-a-million embassy cables it had in its possession. Politicos and officials have probably ceased worrying about future leaks, and the nature of their relationship with the Americans is more likely to be shaped by geopolitical dynamics than concerns of being found out.

Meanwhile, Pakistanis are wiser about the cast of characters who run their country but have moved on to speculation about the opaque events that took place this year. But unless another secret stash of information is somehow released, the truth of many of the developments of 2011 will never be known.

— Madiha Sattar is a Dawn staffer

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