Notes on the Wikileaks Cables

Aug 2015

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Issue 9: Enduring Imperialisms


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In 2013, Wikileaks opened their Archive of Public Diplomacy, placing some of America’s top-secret embassy cables on the public record, on the Internet. The trove of some 2 million records come from a myriad of American embassies in various countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and every other country where the US has an embassy. Some of these cables were leaked previously, in November 2010, in the Cablegate leak. The cables came from an insider who is said to have been motivated by a desire for “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms.” All of these have occurred since the leaks and as a result of them: a debate on surveillance as well as on US foreign policy; proposed reforms to laws on citizen surveillance; and discussion of the relationship between governments and their people.

Over the decades prior to the leaks, at least some of these cables have been available to thousands of people with the relevant security clearances. The cable writers have ideological biases, as well as personal and political agendas. As a result, while there is rich and interesting factual material in the cables that remains to be fully analyzed, the cables are also an important resource for trying to understand how U.S. decision makers have understood the world in which they were applying their vast capacities for intervention.

Now, Wikileaks has combined the cables leaked in 2010 with declassified State Department documents to create what it calls, a Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy, or the PLUSD Archive.

A sample of some of the U.S. State Department cables from this archive can provide a sense of the kinds of insights that can be found through this type of analysis. Patterns emerge in the cables within the years. Continuities appear across the decades, as well as changes in context.

I chose two years of cables from the US Embassy in Islamabad: one of the earliest years available (1974) and one of the latest (2007), and selected all documents longer than 10,000 characters (the PLUSD archive enables searching by length of the document).

For 1974, there were 35 documents, while for 2007, there were forty. Several patterns emerge.

A chaotic Pakistan

A November 14, 1974 cable titled “Positive Prognosis for Balochistan” describes the successes of Pakistan’s counterinsurgency efforts there. The cable warned that, “Reporting on the sprawling, strategic province is inevitably impressionistic; dust is always thrown in outside observers’ eyes to cloud or slant their vision.” But, it went to comment that, “The army had conducted one successful campaign against eh Marris and moved against the Mengals.” As a result, “Visiting U.S. officials were struck by the relations of the tense atmosphere which had prevailed in Quetta in recent months.”

Given that separatism in Balochistan remains 40 years later, this has been proven an unduly optimistic assessment. Similarly, several of the 2007 cables relating to Pakistan are about the prospects for “stabilizing” the Tribal Areas. A January 17, 2007 cable states, “Musharraf described tougher procedures for border crossing, selective fencing and mining of the border region, stronger leadership for local police and plans to close Afghan refugee camps. He also underscored that tribal leaders in North Waziristan have been given a month to improve implementation of the September 2006 agreement or face possible military action.”

By September of that year, another cable notes that then Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao told U.S. officials that, “Minister Sherpao explained that after the North Waziristan agreement there had been an increase in criminal activity because the checkposts had been abandoned. Therefore, the agreement has been abandoned, and the military has come back to the checkposts and increased scrimmages with militants and criminals. Sherpao stressed that there are currently more than 100,000 troops and security forces in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”


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By 2007, the cables also show that American confidence in Pakistan’s writ over its territory that existed in 1974 is gone. Where the 1970s cables exude a sense of control of the world, the 2000s cables give a sense of containing chaos. Some of this has to do with the end of the Cold War and with it, the Soviet Union. Along with its demise, conflicts and questions over nationalizations or economic vision also disappear from the cables. For example, the US consciously promoted neoliberalism in 1974 to a Pakistani prime minister who needed to push an agenda that he called ‘Islamic socialism’ in order to satisfy the electorate. In 2007, the neoliberal framework is taken completely for granted.

Instead, the 2000s cables are preoccupied with concerns over how to reassert the writ of the Pakistani state to prevent attacks coming from the Tribal Areas against U.S. soldiers, who have occupied Afghanistan.

In both of these cases, the U.S. provided financial and weapons’ aid, largely to the Pakistani military, in order to handle what it views as its foremost concerns in Pakistan. In 1974, U.S. aid was pitched as keeping Pakistan under Western influence, and keeping Pakistan’s military competitive with its Soviet-sponsored enemies, India and Afghanistan. In 2007, it is pitched as keeping Pakistan as an ally in the “War on Terror.”

Taken together, these cables show the consequences of what the U.S. has been fighting for: In 1974, it was winning a struggle over the shape of the future which included imposing inequality, war, and instability in the region. The 2007 cables show what that US victory looks like: growing chaos, a collapsing economy, disaster, militarism, and perpetual insurgency.

Colonizing Afghanistan

Even though U.S. officials were aware of Pakistan’s internal insurgencies, the cables reveal a longstanding concern with using Pakistan as an entry point into Afghanistan. As some of the cables cited below show, the Pakistani state helps the U.S. to interpret Afghanistan and offers ways into the latter country.

Tensions inevitably arise between Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result, and the U.S. cables discuss how to mediate them. In 1974, the U.S. attempted to smooth these tensions by arranging dialogue between Daud and Bhutto; in 2007, the dialogue is between Karzai and Musharraf.

An August 16, 1974 cable is remarkable for those who know the later history of the US-sponsored insurgency run out of Pakistan against Afghanistan’s government, which came to be backed by the USSR: in it, Bhutto blames the Afghan government for having training camps for communist guerrillas who will return to Pakistan to commit subversion. Bhutto, the embassy official reports, “said there was ample proof of Afghan subversion or attempted subversion within the frontier areas, and that there was conclusive evidence that Afghan troops stationed along the border were being sent back to Kabul for training in guerrilla operations inside Pakistan.” The US embassy’s official position is that the US does not want to take sides in this conflict.

The 2007 cables are dominated by working with Pakistan on the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the question of the extent of support for the Taliban by Pakistan. Meanwhile, in both 1974 and in 2007, the U.S, genuinely seems not to want to take sides between India and Pakistan and maintain both as allies.

Promoting capitalism

The cables tell the story of one of the central interests of U.S. governmental diplomacy: the promotion of private business interests. In 1974, a report of a conversation with Prime Minister Bhutto from January 10 is pessimistic about the prospects for U.S. business interests. “I fear,” the U.S. embassy writes, “Bhutto is 90 percent politician,” In other words, he is a man more likely to take economic action that will please his political base than making policies that favor wealthy business interests. The same week, the embassy criticized Bhutto’s nationalization policies. Nationalization, writes the ambassador, may have “pleased left wing and won support among those in masses who see measures as form of redistribution of wealth,” but they have “alienated business” and foreign investment. By October, Bhutto had dismissed Mubashir Hasan, his leftwing finance minister. The embassy wrote that the statesmen of the “22 families” (a kind of business lobby) were “happy” and “may be gaining confidence. 


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The 2007 cables bemoan education, infrastructure, and energy problems. Pakistan’s is a “consumption-led growth story.”Apparent to a reader of these cables over time — but not to officials at the U.S. embassy — is the fact that American intervention played a great role in weakening national economic policies that could have built a stronger education system and better national infrastructure. In addition to pressuring the Pakistani government towards privatization, as discussed above, the U.S. directed much of its money towards arms deals beneficial for the Pakistani military and for American weapons manufacturers, including the famous $3B F-16 sale, a frequently discussed item in the cables.

Thus, reading the US embassy cables through time gives the reader a sense of U.S. preoccupations (with increasing business power, selling arms, and controlling the region), but also a sense of what the effects of the application of US power have been after decades—more chaos, more violence, a shrinking writ of the state, less equality, and sour relations with neighbors. Understanding the details of how the U.S. perceives and acts to guarantee its own interests in the world, the citizens of countries like Pakistan have strong arguments for taking an independent course.

Justin Podur is a professor at York University in Toronto, and has taught at universities in Pakistan and India. This paper was initially presented at the Toronto Pakistan Conference.

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