By Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; A07
During a visit to Pakistan barely a week before Barack Obama's inauguration, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. sought reassurance from Pakistan's military and intelligence chiefs that they "had the same enemy" as the United States and were prepared to take action against insurgent sanctuaries inside their border.
The head of Pakistan's army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, told Biden that the two countries were "on the same page," although there would inevitably be "tactical differences" in their approaches. Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the intelligence chief, said he was hurt that the CIA did not appear to trust him, according to one of dozens of private U.S. diplomatic cables released Tuesday by the Web site WikiLeaks.
Nearly two years later, the administration is still asking the same questions. In the meantime, it has plied Pakistan with aid, worried about the safety of its nuclear arsenal, and tried to keep its civilian government from falling or being overthrown by the military.
The documents, most of which date from 2009, revealed some new elements of the always fraught relationship. Pakistan, which has publicly rejected any U.S. military presence beyond trainers restricted to specified bases, secretly authorized as many as 12 U.S. Special Operations commandos to work as advisers to conventional army units in operations last year against insurgents in the tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan.
A Oct. 9, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad described the arrangement as a "sea change" in Pakistani military attitudes. It noted that "previously, the Pakistani military leadership adamantly opposed letting us embed our special operations personnel with their military forces."
It is not clear from the cable how many, if any, of the special forces advisers were put in place.
The security of Pakistan's nuclear arms was a recurring theme in the released cables, beginning with a December 2008 U.S. intelligence briefing to NATO noting, "Despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world."
In a cable to brief the new Obama administration before Kayani's February 2009 visit to Washington, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson said that "our major concern has not been that an Islamic militant could steal an entire weapon, but rather the chance someone working in [government weapons] facilities could gradually smuggle enough fissile material out to eventually make a weapon and the vulnerability of weapons in transit."
In May of last year, Patterson reported that Pakistan had reneged on an agreement to allow the United States to remove an aging stockpile of highly enriched uranium at a research nuclear reactor. The Pakistanis worried, she said, that the media would get wind of the removal and "portray it as the United States taking Pakistan's nuclear weapons."
The following month, in a briefing prepared for a visit by then-national security adviser James L. Jones, Patterson said Pakistan had gone "on the defensive" about its arsenal after international media's reporting about U.S. concerns.The Pakistani government, she wrote, "is particularly neuralgic to suggestions that its nuclear weapons could fall into terrorist hands and to reports of U.S. plans to seize the weapons in case of emergency."
In the cables, Pakistani officials complain about a U.S. civil nuclear accord with India, their traditional adversary, and note that its provisions will allow Indians to divert materials to their own weapons program.
Administration officials noted that the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons had been extensively discussed during a White House strategy review last fall. Although President Obama has made repeated public expressions of confidence in Pakistani safeguards, the issue remains one of high concern.
"Why is it that we're trying to prevent the Pakistani government from collapsing?" one administration official said. "Because we fundamentally believe that we cannot afford a country with 80 to 100 nuclear weapons becoming the Congo."
"Shoring up Pakistan, helping it fight extremism, trying to improve its institutions are not just a humanitarian effort or some naive public diplomacy gambit," the official said. "There is a sense that other places in the world can go to hell, but not this one."
The cables portrayed a weak civilian government under President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani that has supported U.S. aims but is fearful of the powerful Pakistani military. When Patterson, who also served as ambassador in George W. Bush's administration, met with Zardari in August 2008, the new president brushed aside concerns raised by his interior minister about attacks within Pakistani territory by unmanned U.S. drone aircraft. The government, then and now, publicly rejected the attacks and denied approving them.
"I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people," Zardari said. "We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it."
But Zardari's bravado often apparently lapsed into anxiety. Zardari, Biden told then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in March 2009, had confided to him that he feared Kayani would "take me out."
Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, told U.S. emissary Richard C. Holbrooke in January that Zardari had been "in better shape" than expected during a recent visit to Abu Dhabi. But Zardari had also asked "that his family be allowed to live in the UAE in the event of his death," bin Zayed reported, according to the U.S. account of the meeting.