WikiLeaks gets muted political response in Pakistan

Criticism at home of Pakistan’s major political players is likely to be quelled by the fact that the government and its political opposition have been embarrassed equally.

By , Correspondent

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    People watch a television broadcasts program regarding WikiLeaks memos about Pakistan's nuclear program at a local electronic shop in Karachi, Pakistan on Dec.1.
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The latest tranche of leaked US embassy cables out of Pakistan have highlighted the Pakistani military’s influence over its civilian government as well as America’s deep role in the country’s power politics.

But criticism here of Pakistan’s major political players is likely to be quelled by the fact that the government and its political opposition have been embarrassed equally. Also, the Pakistan Army is set to benefit from general reluctance among Pakistani media to criticize the government, according to analysts.

“Only those who have always been genuinely critical of US policy can truly hope to benefit,” from the WikiLeaks information dump, notes Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He adds that it will be back to business as usual once the newness of the WikiLeaks wears off.

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But first, the revelations

A March 2009 cable reveals that Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani’s told Ambassador Anne Patterson he was considering ousting President Asif Ali Zardari in the midst of the country’s judicial crisis. He hoped to replace him with Awami National Party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan in order to avoid ceding power to opposition party leader Nawaz Sharif.

“We do not believe Army action is imminent. We do believe Kayani was laying down a clear marker so that, if he has to act, he can say he warned the US in advance and gave us ample opportunities to pressure both sides to back down,” the cable reads, indicating the influence that the Army reasonably presumed the US to have. The cable may also damage Kayani’s oft-cited reputation as a consummate professional, uninterested in interfering in the governing process.

The embattled President Zardari, for his part, comes across at times as pliable, telling US congressmen that "We won't act without consulting with you," in an Islamabad meeting a few months before his election as president.

The cables also reveal the extent of his paranoia about possible assassination. He made preparations for his Pakistani People’s Party to be led by his sister Faryal Talpur, and asked the UAE to allow his family to live there after his possible death. Zardari’s wife, Benazir Bhutto, was killed in a suicide bomb attack in December 2007.

Suspicions confirmed

Some ”revelations” are less surprising, such as Zardari’s government signing off on controversial drone attacks while simultaneously condemning them as a breach of sovereignty, confirming analysts’ suspicions. "I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it,” he was quoted as saying in a cable.

Zardari’s political opponents may find it hard to extract mileage from the revelations, however. Opposition leader Mr. Sharif, who plays on anti-Americanism to cement his base with the Pakistani right, repeatedly reassured Ambassador Patterson of his “pro-American” credentials in a February 2008 cable. And according to the Guardian newspaper, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the country’s largest Islamist party, hosted a dinner for the ambassador where he solicited her backing for becoming prime minister, and made it clear that his votes were “up for sale.”

The cables affirm drawing-room chatter and rumors at the time – especially concerning Pakistan’s political classes, as well as their relationship with the US and with each other, according to Mr. Rais.

Reaction to the revelation that small teams of US special forces have been operating in the country at the invitation of the Pakistan Army has also been limited, partly because of the Pakistani media’s self-censorship.

“Those who are against militancy in Pakistan aren’t very concerned at who does the killing,” Professor Rais says, adding that he information will be used by militants and their sympathizers for propaganda purposes.

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