Anne of leaked cables and the myth of infinite American influence in Pakistan

If there was a protagonist in the WikiLeaks cables released last week, it would be a petite, blond, Arkansas-born career diplomat, Anne Patterson, who until recently had been the U.S ambassador to Pakistan. Patterson stars in a Pakistan-based soap opera — potential names include: "As Pakistan Burns," "Dynasties," "Mental Hospital," and "The Bold and the ...

By , president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia.
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

If there was a protagonist in the WikiLeaks cables released last week, it would be a petite, blond, Arkansas-born career diplomat, Anne Patterson, who until recently had been the U.S ambassador to Pakistan.

Patterson stars in a Pakistan-based soap opera -- potential names include: "As Pakistan Burns," "Dynasties," "Mental Hospital," and "The Bold and the Pitiful" - and serves as a confidant and key influencer for Pakistan's elites as they wage war with one another and vie for U.S. approbation, seen as a prerequisite for high office in Pakistan.

Each episode contains its fair share of salacious gossip and intrigue. A former Pakistani prime minister tells Patterson that her government did well to choose his country's new army chief. He then proceeds to explain to her why he's pro-American. A bearded, burly, pro-Taliban politician asks her to consider him for the premiership as he wines and dines her (he actually probably served her Pepsi or a new Pakistani favorite, Mountain Dew). The Pakistani president tells her the army's out to kill him and that he's going to go after a major opposition leader and political opponent. The interior minister confides in her, claiming that the army, judiciary, the Saudis, and two other political parties are conspiring against his government. The army chief tells her that he distrusts the major opposition leader as much as he dislikes the president.

If there was a protagonist in the WikiLeaks cables released last week, it would be a petite, blond, Arkansas-born career diplomat, Anne Patterson, who until recently had been the U.S ambassador to Pakistan.

Patterson stars in a Pakistan-based soap opera — potential names include: "As Pakistan Burns," "Dynasties," "Mental Hospital," and "The Bold and the Pitiful" – and serves as a confidant and key influencer for Pakistan’s elites as they wage war with one another and vie for U.S. approbation, seen as a prerequisite for high office in Pakistan.

Each episode contains its fair share of salacious gossip and intrigue. A former Pakistani prime minister tells Patterson that her government did well to choose his country’s new army chief. He then proceeds to explain to her why he’s pro-American. A bearded, burly, pro-Taliban politician asks her to consider him for the premiership as he wines and dines her (he actually probably served her Pepsi or a new Pakistani favorite, Mountain Dew). The Pakistani president tells her the army’s out to kill him and that he’s going to go after a major opposition leader and political opponent. The interior minister confides in her, claiming that the army, judiciary, the Saudis, and two other political parties are conspiring against his government. The army chief tells her that he distrusts the major opposition leader as much as he dislikes the president.

Patterson is part peacekeeper and part therapist for Pakistan’s dysfunctional and destructive power elite. Were she a licensed mental health professional, Patterson would have likely diagnosed Pakistan’s major power brokers as collectively afflicted with paranoia (justifiable, given their perpetual plotting) and an inferiority complex.

She essentially does that in one of her cables, commenting: "The fact that a former Prime Minister believes the U.S. could control the appointment of Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff speaks volumes about the myth of American influence here."

The capacity of Pakistan’s power brokers to defy the United States is well-demonstrated. Pakistan developed a nuclear bomb despite U.S. opposition. Its military-intelligence establishment continues to aid Afghan insurgents while receiving billions in U.S. aid. Its politicians deflect U.S. pressure to engage in positive economic and social reform, despite a sinking economy and their utter dependence on Washington for protection against a military and general public that revile them.

Indeed, when Sheikh Rashid Ahmed — a populist politician, military establishment tool, active lifelong bachelor, and political fortune teller — was asked if it’s true that Pakistani politicians lie to their own people and tell U.S. officials the truth, he said: "[No,] they lie to the Americans too."

The one politician who proves to not to lie to the Americans and his own people is former cricket star and playboy-turned philanthropist and center-right politician, Imran Khan. He offers a U.S. congressional delegation the same message he repeats regularly in political rallies and on talk shows in Pakistan: the U.S. war in Afghanistan is destabilizing Pakistan, and only a political solution to the Pashtun insurgencies along the Durand Line can bring a lasting peace to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Khan, unfortunately, has been unable to develop a serious political machine since founding his own political party in 1996.

Ambassador Patterson has left the show, but the Pakistani soap opera continues. Viewers get their daily dose of drama. But the poor South Asian country is veering toward tragedy with a rapidly growing population and stagnant economic growth. Pakistanis are stuck with their power elite, who prove to be a pathetic, lowly lot. Even the U.S charge d’ Affairs in Islamabad notes that Zardari "continues to play politics while his country disintegrates." For Pakistanis, the show must go on. But with their myopic, rapacious elite, it’ll take a revolution to change the narrative.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He writes at the Pakistan Policy Blog.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia. Twitter: @arifcrafiq

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