Wikileaks In Pakistan


Cablegate has been discussed incessantly in Pakistan, polarising the media and public alike between those who are convinced the over 250,000 classified documents were planted by the US itself to malign Pakistan and others, and those who are convinced it proves the US is really in charge in Pakistan.

The media has focussed almost entirely on the cables which show President Asif Zardari in a poor light. Among these were private comments by the Saudi King that Zardari was the "greatest obstacle" to Pakistan’s progress. Pakistan’s biggest news channel, the privately owned Geo, took the lead in the selective disclosures, the latest in its pathological and often simplistic attacks on Zardari, widower of the slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Like others it focused, rightly, on the micro-management of Pakistan’s governance by the US. But, quite inaccurately, it apportioned most of the blame for the unbalanced relationship with the superpower on President Zardari.

They also disclosed that Zardari does not expect to complete his full five year term as president, of which he has just over two years left. According to one report from the US embassy in Islamabad, Zardari told US Vice President Joseph Biden that he feared the Army "might take me out."

Regardless of such selectivity of publication, the cables did indeed prove that Zardari has been more than willing to promote US interests in the country. At one point just prior to being voted to the presidency by parliament, he is quoted as telling then US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson his government "won’t act without consulting" the US. If Zardari is guilty of acquiescing to American hegemony, however, so too are Pakistan’s other civilian and military leaders.

Also revealed is the intense rivalry within Pakistan’s political class. The US embassy emerges as a place for rival camps to press their credentials to lead the country.

Another bombshell dropped by the Wikileaks cables that has been seized by Pakistan’s media was the revelation that Fazlur Rehman, leader of the powerful mainstream religious party Jamaat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI-F), had pleaded in 2007 with the US Ambassador to be made Prime Minister as the government of then military dictator Pervez Musharraf foundered. Publically Rehman is one of the most vocal and virulent opponents of the US and his party is famed for touting outlandish allegations against America. The cable reveals that his rhetoric is largely theatrical.

Much the same is true of Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League. Although Sharif is the vanguard of middleclass anti-Americanism in Pakistan, the cables reveal that he too tried to prove his "pro-American" credentials to Washington.

Criticism of the Army’s obsequiousness towards the US was virtually non-existent, as was its obsession with supporting Islamist militants as a bulwark against India. In one of the cables an American diplomat said the army could be influenced by US military aid, but no amount of largesse would end its support for militants.

As usual the English language press and a few local language editorialists did provide balanced reportage. But these were the exceptions to the rule.

The saga went from dramatic to farcical when a new tranche of US cables appeared to confirm a cacophony of right-wing fantasies about Pakistan’s perceived enemy India. The documents purportedly proved an Indian hand in the bombings that have rocked every major city in the country and its fractious tribal border with Afghanistan, a claim constantly aired by Pakistan intelligence officials and prominent commentators.

A day later almost all the major outlets that published the cables issued an apology, noted that the documents were very likely fakes.

The Wikileaks cables have provided an incredible wealth of primary source material on Pakistan, its relationship with the US and the unending war across the region. But much like national media the world over, Pakistan’s media has proved largely incapable of breaking out of the familiar prism of conspiracy, heroes and villains. The price of this restriction has been that most Pakistanis remain confused and suspicious of their political leaders and US influence over the nation. True, much of the suspicion looks to be warranted in light of the Wikileaks cables. Whether it will change the nature of politics in Pakistan or US influence, however, appears unlikely.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.