WikiLeaks Cables Open Window on Pakistani Politics

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The leading English-language newspaper, Dawn, and its Web site on Friday began publishing a selection of more than 4,000 American diplomatic cables obtained from WikiLeaks that are devoted to Pakistan, opening a window onto the American-Pakistani relationship and domestic politics never seen here before.

The cables, which were reviewed and in some cases reported on by The New York Times last year, include a request from the head of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, for American surveillance drones to fly over South Waziristan where the army was fighting the Taliban.

The request by General Kayani referred only to unarmed surveillance drones, but the very mention of the army chief’s asking the Centcom commander at the time, Adm. William J. Fallon, in January 2008 for American surveillance drones is likely to prove highly embarrassing.

The Pakistani military and the civilian government have insisted in public that they do not support the C.I.A. drones that attack militants in the tribal areas, even though they have acquiesced to the strikes in private.

A front-page article in Dawn on Friday said the cables confirmed that the drone strikes within Pakistan had more than just tacit acceptance of the military leadership.

The story quoted from a cable of Feb. 9, 2009, by Ambassador Anne Patterson in which she said General Kayani “knows full well that the strikes have been precise (creating few civilian casualties) and targeted primarily at foreign fighters in Waziristan.”

In another example of how until recently the drone strikes were appreciated by the Pakistani leadership, the story quoted Ambassador Patterson as saying that the military aide to President Asif Ali Zardari estimated that 60 Pakistani soldiers would have been killed if they had been directed to attack a site that the target of drones.

The newspaper wrote admiringly of what they called Ms. Patterson’s prescience when she noted in a Nov. 24, 2008, cable that the gap between the private acquiescence of the Pakistani government and public condemnation of American action would grow, a gap that has now become a major stumbling block in the American-Pakistani relationship.

“Pakistani leaders who feel they look increasingly weak to their constituents could begin considering stronger action against the U.S., even though the response to date has focused largely on ritual denunciation,” she wrote.

A spokesman for the Pakistani military, in response to the cables about the drones, said that the military had not asked for armed drones. “There has only been sharing of technical intelligence,” the spokesman said.

In the last several months as the relationship with Washington has soured, General Kayani has become less enamored of the drones and asked the Obama administration to stop the armed drone attacks.

The C.I.A. has refused to halt the strikes, and the question of the drones are now at the heart of the fraught Pakistani-American relationship. The drones are interpreted as an infringement of sovereignty, an argument that has intensified since the May 2 Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The editor of Dawn, Zafar Abbas, said that he had signed an agreement with Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, in April. “We thought it was important for the people to know what the politicians and army had been telling the Americans, how the United States viewed Pakistan and the Pakistani situation,” Mr. Abbas said.

The first-day response was far more than expected, Mr. Abbas said. Phone calls to the television station of Dawn, hits on the Web site and e-mails had been “overwhelming.”

The cables published Friday also included embarrassing accounts of domestic politics. An account in a cable by an American diplomat, Bryan Hunt, who was posted to the American Consulate in Lahore said that Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab Province, was willing to have the controversial Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, removed from his position after the judge was granted “a face-saving” restoration.

Mr. Sharif is the brother of Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, and the chief minister was said by Mr. Hunt to be speaking for the opposition party as a whole.

The disclosure that the Sharif brothers were willing to ditch the chief justice after putting up a public stance that they would go to the mat for his restoration was politically damaging, said Ishaq Khakwani, a former minister of telecommunications.

“It shows that in their heart of hearts none of the political parties, nor the army ever want an independent judicial system,” Mr. Khakwani said. “Everyone is autocratic by nature.”

Pakistan has developed a rambunctious printed press, and politics is hashed over nightly on an array of television talk shows. But the press is in some respects also manipulated by the political parties, the army and the intelligence agencies, so the disclosure of documents that cover behind-the-scenes conversations among top leaders lends a credence rarely seen in Pakistan.

“Politicians can get away with a friendly chat show on TV people forget,” Mr. Khakwani said. “When people see hard facts there will be more questioning.”

So far, there has been no direct pressure or any request to stop publication, Mr. Abbas said.

Indeed, even the publication of WikiLeaks in Pakistan showed the relationships among the Pakistani elite.

The head of the army public information unit who released a statement titled “Contradiction,” saying General Kayani had not asked for the support of armed drones for military operations, is Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. He is the brother of Zafar Abbas, the editor of Dawn.

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