Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, whose wife, Benazir Bhutto, was killed in a suicide bombing, has made extensive preparations in case of his own assassination.
Last year Zardari told the US ambassador, Anne Patterson, that if he was assassinated, “he had instructed his son Bilawal to name his sister, Faryal Talpur, as president”.
This year Zardari requested the United Arab Emirates to allow his family to live there in the event of his death. His wife lived in self-imposed exile in the UAE for years before her ill-fated return to Pakistan in 2007.
The cables provide a changing portrait of Zardari, America’s key Pakistani ally along with the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. A sharp-edged 2008 description of Zardari notes that he hails from a tribe with “little social standing” in Sindh; “there is a story that as children, Sindhis were told ‘a Zardari stole it’ if something went missing”.
But later dispatches portray him as a more capable leader, with considerable political nous, although often burdened by his association with deep-seated corruption.
Zardari is frank about the strength of the Taliban – “I’m sorry to say this but we are not winning” the war against extremists he told the US vice-president, Joe Biden, in 2009 – and his own limitations.
“I am not Benazir, and I know it,” he told the US ambassador after his wife’s death.
And he fears a fresh army coup. Zardari said he was concerned that Kayani might “take me out”, Biden reported to Gordon Brown during a meeting in Chile in 2009. Brown said he thought it unlikely.
The observations on Pakistan’s often beleaguered president are part of several portraits about prominent Pakistani politicians that are dotted with insight, colour and some surprises.
In November 2007 Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the country’s most fiercely pro-Taliban religious party, hosted a jovial dinner for Patterson at which he sought her backing to become prime minister and expressed a desire to visit America.
“All important parties in Pakistan had to get the approval” of the US, said his aide Abdul Ghafoor Haideri. After the meeting Patterson commented on the mullah’s famously wily political skills. “He has made it clear that … his still significant number of votes are up for sale.”
The cables also highlight the contradictions of other prominent Pakistanis. Officials noted that Amin Fahim, a Bhutto supporter hoping to become prime minister, led a religious Islamic group “while enjoying an occasional bloody mary”.
The opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif had a “notoriously difficult personality” while his family is noted to have “relied primarily on the army and intelligence agencies for political elevation”.
America’s perceived influence on Pakistani power politics is a frequent theme. In a May 2008 meeting with a visiting American congressional delegation, Zardari said: “We won’t act without consulting with you.”
Sharif repeatedly told the US ambassador he was “pro-American”, despite his often critical public stance. He thanked the US for “arranging” to have Kayani appointed as army chief. “The best thing America has done recently,” he said.
“The fact that a former prime minister believes the US could control the appointment of Pakistan’s chief of army staff speaks volumes about the myth of American influence here,” the ambassador noted tartly afterwards.But some dispatches make it clear that the Americans do wield great clout. After General Pervez Musharraf resigned as president in 2008, ambassador Patterson pressed Zardari to grant him immunity from prosecution. “We believed, as we had often said, that Musharraf should have a dignified retirement and not be hounded out of the country,” she said.
The US – and Kayani – worried that Zardari would renege on his word. “Zardari is walking tall these days, hopefully not too tall to forget his promise to Kayani and to us on an immunity deal,” wrote Patterson.
If Zardari didn’t protect Musharraf then it would make him look bad. “I have to bring the army along with me,” he said, also noting that the delay “does nothing for Zardari’s reputation for trustworthiness”.
The notable exception to that US influence, however, is the former cricketer Imran Khan, who delivered a long lecture to visiting US politicians about the iniquities of US policy.
Welcoming the group at his grand home outside Islamabad, Khan hosted an “hour-long, largely one-sided, and somewhat uncomfortable conversation”.
To defeat the Taliban the US had to understand the “tribal character” of the militants, he said, and described the Pakistani drive against the Taliban in 2009 as “stage-managed” for US consumption.
There are apercus in the cables into the often inscrutable military leaders. Kayani is “direct, frank, and thoughtful” and has “fond memories” of time spent on a military training course in the US. It is also noted that “he smokes heavily and can be difficult to understand as he tends to mumble.” The Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, was “usually more emotional” than Kayani.
US diplomats also have a ringside seat to civilian wrangles. In February 2009 Zardari aide Farahnaz Ispahani said the president was “very unhappy” with the way the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, had “gone off the reservation”. In 2008 Zardari said Fahim “had spent most of the [election] campaign in Dubai (with his latest 22 year-old wife) and was simply too lazy to be prime minister”.
The cables also record embarrassing mistakes in the embassy’s efforts to manage its relationships with Pakistan’s power elite. Six months after his dinner with the ambassador, Rehman was less enamoured of US policy when the FBI issued a notice suggesting he had orchestrated a suicide bombing in Islamabad.
The embassy asked the FBI to urgently recall the notice – he had been confused with another man with a similar name. Rehman was a “frequent and co-operative interlocutor with post and professes his support for co-operation with the United States”, the request said.
By: Declan Walsh