US diplomatic cables provide deep insights into the true extent of Pakistan’s true volatility. American Embassy dispatches show that the military and the Pakistani intelligence agency are heavily involved in the atomic power’s politics — and often work against US interests.
The instructions came directly from then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and she didn’t beat around the bush. “Express Washington’s strong opposition to the release of Dr. Khan and urge the Government of Pakistan to continue holding him under house arrest,” Rice wrote to her ambassador, Anne Patterson, in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
It was April 2008, and the US administration was deeply concerned about reports that the man widely believed to be the biggest nuclear smuggler of all time, Pakistan’s Abdul Qadir Khan, could soon be a free man. Khan had allegedly supported North Korea, Iran and Libya in their nuclear programs by supplying them with plans and centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Although the Americans had exposed his proliferation ring back in 2004, and the nuclear scientist had confessed, probably under pressure from the government, Khan was never indicted or convicted in Pakistan, but merely placed under house arrest.
Ambassador Patterson, a resolute 59-year-old from Arkansas, immediately went into action. Her key contact was the head of the army’s Strategic Plans Division, Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, who was responsible for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Kidwai had previously made sure that Khan was unable to do any further damage. Patterson also spoke with then-President Pervez Musharraf, who assured the US ambassador that there was nothing to worry about: “He will not be released.”
Kidwai, however, saw complications: “His legal status was that he was a free man. … If he tried to walk out today, … the government of Pakistan had no legal grounds to stop him.”
Appeasing the Americans
On Feb. 6, 2009, a court rescinded Khan’s house arrest, effective immediately. The news caught the new president, Asif Ali Zardari, completely off guard. Ambassador Patterson, for her part, was incensed over the “persistent lack of coordination” of the government in Islamabad. In response to her protest, however, Zardari and his interior minister guaranteed her that they would try to “establish a legal basis for Khan’s detention.”
That is exactly what they did. Today, Khan is once again cut off from the rest of the world. He is fighting a renewed legal battle in the courts against his house arrest — a state of affairs whose main purpose is to appease the Americans.
The Pakistanis’ sophisticated nuclear program is one of the main reasons why the US continues to increase its involvement in the region. The Americans know how unstable the country is, and how weak the government is. They also reveal how the Pakistani military and intelligence agency play the political game according to their own rules.
Hundreds of the diplomatic protocols deal exclusively with the threat posed by the nuclear weapons that the US’s unstable ally has in its possession. “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon,” reads one dispatch sent by the embassy in Islamabad to Richard Holbrooke, the US’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Taking Pakistan’s Nukes
The Americans would prefer to have complete control over the Pakistani nuclear arsenal but, as the reports show, they are a long way from achieving this goal. During his visit, Holbrooke merely received a briefing on the “physical, personnel and command and control safeguards for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.” The security technology at the nuclear facilities was significantly improved with help from the US. Nevertheless, the Pakistanis firmly reject any further involvement on the part of the Americans.
For instance, they oppose the plan for “fuel removal” to the US. The Americans supplied these elements for use in a research reactor a number of years ago. The man responsible for this decision, the director for disarmament in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, justified the endless delays by saying “if the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.'”
These nuclear warheads are located in a country where it is unclear who stands on which side. To make matters worse, it’s hard to determine exactly what role the country’s notorious intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), plays in Pakistan. It’s rare that anyone expresses themselves as clearly as John Dister of the National Intelligence Council, a think tank for the US intelligence agencies. “When the ISI supports the Taliban, one can assume it is acting on government of Pakistan orders,” Dister is quoted as telling NATO allies in early 2008, at a time when President Musharraf was still governing. According to the dispatch, Dister “noted the huge anxiety in Pakistan leadership circles that US/NATO will pull out of Afghanistan in the near future, leaving chaos, thus causing the ISI to maintain links with Taliban as a hedge.” Dister added that Pakistan’s intelligence community is also motivated by fears that India may become more actively involved in Afghanistan.
Relations between Pakistan and the US are a constant rollercoaster ride, full of tensions and an endless tug-of-war over concessions, military operations and opposing notions of strategies. US senators, top military brass and US special envoy Richard Holbrooke make a steady stream of visits to Islamabad. Because of the billions of dollars in military aid that it gives to Pakistan, the US reserves the right to intervene in the country’s security issues, up to and including decisions about key positions.
‘Out of Control’
“We have learned since 9/11 that Pakistan responds, periodically, to US pressure on counter-terrorism; we should continue to press for action on specific agenda items.” This was the advice issued by Ambassador Patterson during the summer of 2008, in the run-up to a visit to the US by the new Pakistani prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani.
Patterson listed all the things that the US chief of staff and the deputy head of the CIA achieved during a recent visit to Islamabad, which included the Pakistani authorities “arresting several Taliban shura members in Quetta” and “initiating an Army operation in North Waziristan.” She also wrote that “we expect they will allow another B-300 surveillance aircraft to operate.”
But the diplomat was also frustrated over all the things that had failed: “The government of Pakistan has not targeted Siraj Haqqani or his network; nor have they arrested Commander Nazir or Gulbaddin Hekmatyar. These militants are responsible for much of the 40 percent increase in cross-border attacks on our troops in Afghanistan this year.” And although President Musharraf had acknowledged that “elements of ISI may be out of control,” he remained “reluctant to replace ISI Director Nadeem Taj,” she wrote.
Shortly after Musharraf’s resignation as president in August 2008, however, the Pakistani Army’s then-head of military operations, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was appointed as the new director-general of the ISI. Pasha is an experienced commander who has conducted numerous operations in the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan. In comparison to Taj, he has a reputation for being a cosmopolitan man who speaks not only English but also German; years ago, Pasha attended a number of courses at the Bundeswehr’s military academy in Hamburg.
The Pakistani government and the army regularly protest against the US use of drones in the tribal areas along the border to Afghanistan. The attacks, they say, violate Pakistani sovereignty and cause an increasing number of civilian deaths. In the dispatches from the US Embassy in Islamabad, however, the Pakistanis are much less harsh in their critique.
ISI head Pasha praised the weapons in comments to members of the Pakistani parliament. “The vast majority of those killed in drone attacks,” he said, “were foreign fighters or Taliban.”
On the Brink of War between India and Pakistan
Many of the discussions between Islamabad and Washington deal with the topic of money, with billions of dollars involved. The war on terror in Pakistan is expensive, and for many it is also big business. In September 2009, for instance, the Pakistani finance minister complained once again to US special envoy Holbrooke that a payment of $500 million still needed to be made. The top diplomat responded that Washington couldn’t transfer the amount “because the Pakistani military had not properly accounted for its spending.” He added that Congress “required stricter accounting” for Coalition Support Fund (CSF) monies. CSF funding is the money that the US uses to buy the military cooperation of foreign countries in the so-called war on terror. Nobody receives more CSF money than Pakistan. Over the past nine years, over $7 billion in CSF funds have been transferred to the country, with even more money coming from other sources.
Nonetheless, the head of the army, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said he wanted to account for the funding “following UN standards,” — in other words, by naming lump sums. He didn’t want to have to give an exact account of how he was using the money. The diplomatic protocols make it clear that General Kayani is the most powerful man in Pakistan. They also show the weakness of the civilian president, Zardari. Zardari and his people “agree that Pakistan’s biggest threat comes from a growing militant insurgency on the Pak-Afghan border,” Patterson wrote in February 2009, shortly before Kayani’s visit to Washington. “The military and ISI have not yet made that leap; they still view India as their principle threat and Afghanistan as strategic depth in a possible conflict with India. They continue to provide overt or tacit support for proxy forces (including the Haqqani group, Commander Nazir, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, and Lashkar-e-Taiba) as a foreign policy tool.”
At the same time, she portrayed General Kayani as “often direct, frank, and thoughtful.”
Disdain for the New President
Only a few months after Zardari had been sworn into office, Kayani and the ISI director-general Pasha were making no secret of the fact that they felt disdain for the new president. “Kayani and Pasha’s body language was disrespectful of their own president,” then-Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar indignantly told the Americans in the spring of 2009.
In November of last year, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik even urgently requested a meeting at the US Embassy in Islamabad because, as he put it, the government needed political protection for the president. According to Malik, ISI Director-General Pasha was spinning intrigues against Zardari. The US ambassador was not convinced that Pasha was acting alone. “Malik’s view that ISI Director-General Pasha is behind the moves against President Zardari and that Chief of Army Staff Kayani is not involved is either naive or intentionally misleading,” she wrote to the US State Department. “It would be impossible for Pasha to move without Kayani’s acquiescence.”
Harsh criticism of Zardari comes from abroad as well. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia considers the Pakistani president to be the “primary obstacle” to government efforts to prevent terrorists from finding a safe haven in Pakistan, according to a dispatch from the US Embassy in Riyadh. “When the head is rotten, it affects the whole body,” the king quipped.
Anything is possible at any time in Pakistan, be it an assassination or a military coup. But tensions have rarely been higher than on Nov. 26, 2008, when a group of extremists from the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba traveled by boat from Karachi to Mumbai and carried out simultaneous attacks at 10 different locations. It took nearly 3 days before all 10 assailants had been overpowered. A total of 175 people died, and only one attacker survived, the Pakistani Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab. “I was prepared to go to India,” ISI Director-General Pasha said a few weeks later in a SPIEGEL interview at his office in Islamabad. The diplomatic dispatches to the US administration now reveal just how crucial the issue of Pasha’s visit to India was during these chaotic days.
Both nuclear powers began to put their armies on alert. According to the embassy reports, then-Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee even apparently threatened Zardari over the phone with war. A military exchange between the neighboring arch-enemies threatened to spark a disaster for the entire region, which could engulf the entire world. “Both Chief of Army Staff General Kayani and President Zardari have stated flatly to Ambassador that the government of Pakistan would have no choice but to retaliate if attacked, and post has no doubt they are sincere,” reads a classified US dispatch. Embassy officials wrote that the Indians were convinced that the Pakistani intelligence agency had prior knowledge of the attack and had approved it. These suspicions could not be confirmed, but it is true that the ISI has provided Lashkar-e-Taiba with massive support, and that the terror group is fighting a guerrilla war against the Indians in Kashmir.
Cooperating with a Sworn Enemy
In Islamabad, communication between the military and the civilian government had become muddled and confused. Zardari gave his army chief only cursory information about his contacts with the US, other allies and India. The main challenge was to figure out how, if at all, Pakistan could cooperate with their sworn enemy India.
ISI head Pasha said that he was prepared to share intelligence information with the Indians, after assurances from the CIA that only the Indian intelligence agency would use the information — and that it would not be leaked to the public domain. On the other hand, nobody in Islamabad knew whether the Indians were even prepared to openly discuss what they knew with the Pakistanis. “If Pasha is embarrassed by what is essentially public dissemination without the Indians providing the results of their own investigation to Pakistan, it will undercut Pakistan’s ability to pursue its investigation, generate a public backlash in Pakistan, and could undermine Pasha personally,” wrote the US Embassy in Islamabad. For the time being, no exchange took place.
Amid the confused flurry of messages between the two governments, the media suddenly started reporting that Islamabad was supposedly sending Pasha to India. Then-British Foreign Minister David Miliband had been among the people who urged Pakistan to take the step, as a symbol of goodwill. In Pakistan, however, many felt that this gesture of reconciliation went too far, and the army leadership also opposed it.
Missiles in the Sandbox
Ultimately, President Zardari wanted to keep Pasha as a trump card, should the conflict with India further escalate. He told the Americans that it was “too early” for a meeting with the head of the intelligence agency: “Let the evidence come to light, let the investigation take its course. Then perhaps there is a position where the directors general could meet … The DG (Pasha) is too senior a person to get into who overall looks into the investigation.”
Shortly thereafter, Pakistani law enforcement officials arrested 124 suspects and tensions eased somewhat. The Pakistanis pressed charges against seven of those detained. But the trials of the defendants have been dragging on for a suspiciously long time. A war has been averted, but this certainly does not mean that anything has changed significantly. There is still a persistent air of mistrust on all sides. In December 2009, FBI agents informed the ISI that they had made a big catch: David Coleman Headley, an American citizen with a Pakistani father, who had scouted out targets in Mumbai on behalf of Lashkar-e-Taiba. He is believed to be one of the ring leaders behind the operation. Headley has pleaded guilty to the charges.
But the Pakistanis have never been allowed to question Headley in the US. In return, the ISI has refused to allow the Americans direct access to an alleged Headley accomplice, a former officer in the Pakistani army. All of this smacks of squabbling in the sandbox. But there are nuclear missiles in this particular sandbox.