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

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.

In 2009, U.S. cables featured concerns that Pakistan had tolerated an alliance of militants who attack U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, that its army remained "fixated" on its nemesis India, and that Pakistan had made little progress on U.S. requests that it curb financing for the domestic militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba or prosecute it for a 2008 attack in Mumbai. One missive said that a U.S. offer to train and pay 100 counterterror police officers had been awaiting a Pakistani response for two years.

By October 2009, Patterson appeared determined to dampen any hope in Washington that a new, multibillion-dollar civilian aid package would help persuade Pakistan to dismantle militant groups that it views as assets for influence in Afghanistan and against India.

"There is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups," Patterson wrote.

Anti-U.S. public opinion

The documents - and the controversy they have generated here - also underscore a powerful sort of leverage Pakistan wields over the United States: strongly anti-American public opinion.

In cable after cable, U.S. emissaries describe how popular opinion affects whether and how Pakistani officials assent to cooperation, and whether and how U.S. officials publicize U.S. efforts.

According to the cables, when Pakistan rebuffed a U.S. effort in 2009 to remove highly enriched uranium from one of its nuclear reactors, it cited the danger of critical media coverage. One month later, an embassy "scene-setter" for visiting National Security Adviser James L. Jones reported that "nuclear cooperation on security issues has decreased after statements made in the press about purported U.S. plans to seize nuclear facilities."

In the same cable, the embassy said that Pakistani leaders insisted counterinsurgency efforts would be supported by the public only if U.S. involvement were obscured. In September 2009, Patterson advised against public comment on reports of extra-judicial killings by Pakistan's military, saying such statements would "erode" goodwill within the Pakistani leadership.

"How to support the civilian government, strengthen its institutions, economy, and military capacity to engage in [counterinsurgency], without further provoking antagonism toward the U.S., remains a central challenge," the briefing for Jones said.

In the past week, Pakistani leaders have dismissed the cables as "the observations of junior diplomats" and evidence of their tough stance against a bullying United States. As the Pakistani media continue to dissect the WikiLeaks documents, some political analysts say the public display of the inner workings of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship may have further weakened the U.S. position here.

"Everyone wants to be close to the Americans," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. "But they don't want to be seen as close to the Americans."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company