U.S. officials try to smooth relations with Pakistan amid WikiLeaks releases

The U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks offer unvarnished insights into the personal proclivities of world leaders.
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 5:14 PM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - The preemptive diplomatic strike began eight days ago.

Last Tuesday, the State Department briefed the Pakistani ambassador in Washington. The next day, in person and by phone, senior U.S. officials extended regrets and assurances to Pakistan's president and foreign minister, according to a senior Pakistani diplomat.

On Monday, the audience was the strongly anti-American Pakistani public: "The United States deeply regrets the disclosure of any information that was intended to be confidential," U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter wrote in a column published in the News, an English-language daily, and its Urdu-language counterpart. "And we condemn it."

As American officials around the globe prepared last week for a deluge of leaked cables from the Web site WikiLeaks that could expose them at their least statesmanlike, they also undertook an acutely delicate diplomatic task: cushioning the blow with key friends and rivals.

Few nations are higher on that list than Pakistan, an uneasy ally in the war on terror, and few harbor more doubts about U.S. loyalty. For nearly two years, as part of President Obama's Afghan war strategy, an expanding embassy staff here and streams of visiting delegations have repeatedly insisted that the United States is a steadfast partner interested in stabilizing, not undermining, Pakistan. According to Pakistani and U.S. officials, those pledges have begun to bear fruit.

But secret State Department documents originating from the embassy in this capital city, which began to leak out publicly Tuesday, could undermine those efforts. Of particular concern, Pakistani officials said, is how the leaked cables depict Pakistan's military, which is considered the real power in this nominally civilian-led nation, and its nuclear weapons program, which many Pakistanis believe the United States seeks to destroy.

In the cables, according to accounts in the New York Times and London's the Guardian, U.S. officials express worry about nuclear materials ending up in the hands of extremists, report alleged civilian killings by Pakistan's army and describe frustration about Pakistani tolerance, and even support, of militant groups.

Anticipating tension over the revelations, U.S. officials have sought to head off the damage, the Pakistani diplomat said, with a "flurry of diplomatic exchanges."

The maneuvers included a phone call last week from the U.S. special representative to the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, as well as a meeting between Munter and Pakistan's foreign minister, Pakistani officials said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also placed a call to Pakistani Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani.

American officials were "apologetic and promised damage control," the Pakistani diplomat said. Another Pakistani diplomat said U.S. counterparts "told us not to read too much into this matter."

Pakistan, for its part, "expressed frustration over how the world's sole superpower can't keep its secrets and confidences, and how that makes it so much more difficult to be America's friend," the senior diplomat said.

Alberto Rodriguez, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, declined to comment on the exchanges, saying only that American officials "spoke to Pakistan's leadership well in advance of the Wiki leaks."

Pakistani officials said the advance warnings and apologies had helped smooth official relations. Assuaging the Pakistani public will be a far more difficult matter, they said.

Pakistan's freewheeling media, which include a stable of talk shows on which hosts and guests trade conspiracy theories about the U.S. agenda in Pakistan, have seized on the few Pakistan-related references released earlier in the week.

One reported on Pakistan's refusal to allow U.S. officials to remove a batch of highly enriched uranium that the United States had donated to Pakistan decades ago. Some observers here have interpreted that as evidence of American efforts "to enfeeble Pakistan," as the anti-American newspaper the Nation put it.

Another mentioned a French security official's assessment that Kayani, the army chief, had stirred public opposition to a multibillion-dollar U.S. civilian aid package passed by Congress last year.

Cables on Pakistan's support for Islamist militants or other touchy subjects could fuel antipathy toward the United States, emboldening the Pakistani military but undercutting its weak civilian government, officials and analysts said.

"This is beautiful propaganda material," said Mohammad Malick, editor of the News. "This thing about the uranium removal, it falls right smack in the heart of the extremist, right-wing agenda here."

Malick said he received a call from the U.S. Embassy's public affairs wing a few days ago, asking him to run the ambassador's column on Monday.

He said he readily agreed, even though he doubted it would make much of a difference.

"I think it's more like, do something to tell them back home we're doing something," Malick said. By Monday, he said, "they were giving their side of the story once the story's already out."

brulliardk@washpost.com Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

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