Policy of denial
WHATEVER one thinks of Julian Assange, the principles behind his WikiLeaks website are among those that Pakistani civil society has been advocating for: transparency, government accountability, increased access to information and public participation in the political decision-making process. However, barely days after Cablegate, rather than addressing revelations about Pakistani governance and foreign relations, the establishment is doing what it can to suppress the impact of the leaks. It seems as if this diplomatic fiasco is fated to be yet another missed opportunity for Pakistan to evaluate its leadership structure, engage productively with its ambivalent allies and convey its legitimate national interests to the international community.
Although last week's leaks emphasise the divisiveness between the government, army, opposition and foreign powers, the reaction to WikiLeaks' revelations has been uniform. The prime minister has dismissed them as mischief, and the US ambassador has described them as malicious. The Defence Committee of the Cabinet neglected to mention the disclosures in its official press release, stating that it had 'more important' things to discuss, even though sources have confirmed the matter was addressed on Friday.
Taking it a step further, the defence minister has written off the leaks as an attempt to demoralise the armed forces, while the Sindh home minister has denounced the website's revelations as lies. The Lahore High Court also received a petition seeking to ban the WikiLeaks website on the basis that it is a conspiracy to cleave the Muslim world.
One would think that the WikiLeaks releases-which document the extent of the civil-military power struggle, reveal our politicians as mere pawns of foreign governments, raise questions about the security of our nuclear programme, and much more - would prompt clarifications and apologies from our leaders. But the official responses thus far betray a worrying instinct to reject and repudiate that which is problematic. Rather than shatter the status quo, the leaks have strengthened it - concerned officials are now scrambling to deny rather than deal with the issues that have been thrown up by the disclosures, thereby exacerbating existing tensions.
Only Justice Azmat Saeed, the LHC judge who dismissed the petition calling for the WikiLeaks website ban, seems to have got it right. He argued that the website had to remain accessible to honour the public's right to information, adding that nothing is greater than the truth. He also astutely noted that little revealed about Pakistan's military or politics has not already been broadcast by the local media.
Indeed, blogger Peter Beinart's point that the WikiLeaks offer "valuable insights" only if "you've been living under a rock all century" is particularly applicable to Pakistan. Our government was in on the drone attacks? US special operations forces have been on the ground, hunting Al Qaeda militants? None of this comes as a surprise. That, however, is not the point.
The leaked US diplomatic cables have brought off-therecord content into public political discourse. As such, they offer Pakistan the opportunity to rescue foreign relations from the realm of conspiracy theory, and bring international relations into accordance with public expectations. In the context of strained US-Pakistan relations, WikiLeaks could help jumpstart a frank discussion that aims to balance Pakistan's national interests with America's security imperatives; the disclosures could form the basis of plain-speaking engagement that both sides have been requesting since the start of the strategic dialogue.
Many disclosures support the Pakistani argument that its interests are regularly overridden by the US, which has the tendency to see it as nothing more than a gun for hire. For instance, cables confirm Afghan support for Brahamdagh Bugti, reveal that the US is not fully committed to negotiating with the Afghan Taliban, and describe America's lack of confidence in the Afghan government. These leaks give impetus to Pakistan's repeated demands for a role in any Afghanistan solution.
Similarly, the cables show that Pakistani paranoia about nuclear arsenal being seized is not entirely unfounded, as several governments have expressed concerns about nuclear terrorism resulting from a security lapse. PostWikiLeaks, behind-the-scenes bickering about this issue can be aired at a multilateral forum where Pakistan can debate safeguards in line with international standards.
The US, meanwhile, can openly press Pakistan on issues such as continued establishment ties to militant organisations, the misallocation of US funding for the Pakistan Army and Pakistan's disproportionate concerns about the Indian Army's Cold Start doctrine (which the cables describe as a "mixture of myth and reality").
Such unpopular matters can only be tackled if Pakistan is offered concessions on issues that it sees are vital to its national interests. Overall, the facts that have been brought on to public record as a result of the WikiLeaks provide the basis for compromises and negotiations - the stuff of productive diplomacy, which goes beyond ' transactional' engagements - between Pakistan and the US.
More importantly, fact-based dialogue between Pakistan and the US, rather than the musings of media personnel or misquotes of ministers, can encourage the Pakistani public's participation in the foreign policy debate.