In WikiLeaks cables from Pakistan, U.S. officials struggle for leverage

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, December 7, 2010; 12:24 AM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - At a January 2008 meeting with the U.S. ambassador, former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif called himself pro-American and praised the U.S. government's move to "arrange" the naming of the new Pakistani army chief.

The candid conversation, unveiled in leaked cables published by WikiLeaks, has been splashed across Pakistani newspapers. Even in a nation of avid gossipers, evidence that Pakistani politicians held such revealing discussions with U.S. diplomats has been met with shock - and held up as proof of American meddling and control.

"Pakistani leaders stripped off their clothes in the bathroom managed by the Americans," columnist Tariq Butt opined in the News, an English-language daily.

But at the end of that same 2008 cable, then-U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson wryly offered a different perspective on American power over Pakistan: "The fact that a former Prime Minister believes the U.S. could control the appointment of Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff," she wrote, "speaks volumes about the myth of American influence here."

Without doubt, the cables describe Pakistani leaders being far more friendly and open with American envoys than they choose to act in public. But the cables also offer a window onto the limits of U.S. leverage over a prickly partner that rarely does the United States' bidding.

Over nearly a decade, the United States has given billions of dollars in military and civilian aid to Pakistan,an economically and politically unstable nuclear power that is battling an Islamist insurgency. Though U.S. officials say the relationship is not "transactional," Washington clearly wants certain outcomes in exchange for its aid: a vigorous Pakistani campaign against militants, a less volatile economy and secure routes for U.S. war-supply trucks bound for Afghanistan.

In the leaked cables, that mission comes across as a rarely rewarding diplomatic slog. As recently as last year - eight years into the two nations' counterterrorism alliance - then-Vice President-elect Joe Biden questioned whether they shared the "same enemy." Other U.S. officials expressed frustration over continued Pakistani tolerance of, or support for, militants attacking Afghanistan and India.

"The relationship is one of co-dependency we grudgingly admit - Pakistan knows the U.S. cannot afford to walk away; the U.S. knows Pakistan cannot survive without our support," Patterson wrote in early 2009.

Security issues

Speaking with reporters, U.S. officials dispute the idea that they lack at least some sway with Pakistan. At a recent meeting with foreign journalists in Islamabad, a senior U.S. official acknowledged the United States had little influence over economic reforms, but said security issues were a different matter.

"It's not like they blow us off whenever we ask them for cooperation," the official said, adding that seeking "common goals" is the U.S. strategy. "They do things that they want to do that we want them to do."

Indeed, the embassy documents commend Pakistani military offensives in the northwest and note progress in intelligence sharing and military coordination along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. An October 2009 dispatch reported the Pakistan army had agreed to allow U.S. special forces to embed with its own border troops, a move described by the embassy as "a sea change in Pakistani thinking," attributable to "patient relationship-building."

Those security developments are overshadowed by cycles of U.S. requests for action countered by Pakistani requests for more money and understanding.

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