Nuclear fuel memos expose wary dance with Pakistan
Less than a month after President Obama testily assured reporters in 2009 that Pakistan's nuclear materials "will remain out of militant hands," his ambassador here sent a secret message to Washington suggesting that she remained deeply worried. The ambassador's concern was a stockpile of highly enriched uranium, sitting for years near an aging research nuclear reactor in Pakistan. There was enough to build several "dirty bombs" or, in skilled hands, possibly enough for an actual nuclear bomb. In the cable, dated May 27, 2009, the ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, reported that the Pakistani government was yet again dragging its feet on an agreement reached two years earlier to have the United States remove the material.
She wrote to senior American officials that the Pakistani government had concluded that "the 'sensational' international and local media coverage of Pakistan's nuclear weapons made it impossible to proceed at this time." A senior Pakistani official, she said, warned that if word leaked out that Americans were helping remove the fuel, the local press would certainly "portray it as the United States taking Pakistan's nuclear weapons."
It may be the most unnerving evidence of the complex relationship - sometimes cooperative, often confrontational, always wary - between America and Pakistan nearly 10 years into the American-led war in Afghanistan. The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to a number of news organizations, make it clear that underneath public reassurances lie deep clashes over strategic goals on issues like Pakistan's support for the Afghan Taliban and tolerance of Al Qaeda, and Washington's warmer relations with India, Pakistan's archenemy.
Written from the American Embassy in Islamabad, the cables reveal American maneuvering as diplomats try to support an unpopular elected government that is more sympathetic to American aims than is the real power in Pakistan, the army and intelligence agency so crucial to the fight against militants. The cables show just how weak the civilian government is: President Asif Ali Zardari told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. that he worried that the military might "take me out."
Frustration at American inability to persuade the Pakistani Army and intelligence agency to stop supporting the Afghan Taliban and other militants runs through the reports of meetings between American and Pakistani officials.
That frustration preoccupied the Bush administration and became an issue for the incoming Obama administration, the cables document, during a trip in January 2009 that Mr. Biden made to Pakistan 11 days before he was sworn in. In a meeting with Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief of staff, Mr. Biden asked several times whether Pakistan and the United States "had the same enemy as we move forward."
"The United States needs to be able to make an objective assessment of Pakistan's part of the bargain," Mr. Biden said, according to a Feb. 6, 2009, cable.
General Kayani tried to reassure him, saying, "We are on the same page in Afghanistan, but there might be different tactics." Mr. Biden replied that "results" would test that.
The cables reveal at least one example of increased cooperation, previously undisclosed, under the Obama administration. Last fall, the Pakistani Army secretly allowed 12 American Special Operations soldiers to deploy with Pakistani troops in the violent tribal areas near the Afghan border.
The Americans were forbidden to conduct combat missions. Even though their numbers were small, their presence at army headquarters in Bajaur, South Waziristan and North Waziristan was a "sea change in thinking," the embassy reported.
The embassy added its usual caution: The deployments must be kept secret or the "Pakistani military will likely stop making requests for such assistance."
Within the past year, however, Pakistan and the United States have gingerly started to publicly acknowledge the role of American field advisers. Lt. Col. Michael Shavers, an American military spokesman in Islamabad, said in a statement that "at the request of the Pakistanis," small teams of Special Operations forces "move to various locations with their Pakistani military counterparts throughout Pakistan."
Moreover, last week in a report to Congress on operations in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said that the Pakistani Army had also accepted American and coalition advisers in Quetta. The cables do not deal with the sharp increase under Mr. Obama in drone attacks against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the tribal areas with Pakistan's tacit approval. That is because the cables are not classified at the highest levels. Over all, though, the cables portray deep skepticism that Pakistan will ever cooperate fully in fighting the full panoply of extremist groups. This is partly because Pakistan sees some of the strongest militant groups as insurance for the inevitable day that the United States military withdraws from Afghanistan - and Pakistan wants to exert maximum influence inside Afghanistan and against Indian intervention.