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On WikiLeaks, India, Pakistan and a partisan media

by Myra MacDonald, Journalist, London

Reading through some of the WikiLeaks cables, I have been struck by how easy it might be to take the fragmentary and often outdated information contained in them and make a case to support either side of the India-Pakistan divide. Now it turns out someone did, but without even the support of the underlying cables, according to this version of Pakistani media reports by the Pakistan blog Cafe Pyala of alleged Indian skulduggery, including in Baluchistan.

As Cafe Pyala notes, Pakistan’s The News and various other papers cited the alleged cables as proof of alleged Indian involvement in creating trouble in Baluchistan and Waziristan. These allegations were included amongst others that anyone who follows the subject closely hears being bandied about between India and Pakistan. (Reporting on those allegations is much harder, for reasons I will discuss below.)

But according to Cafe Pyala these cables may not even exist, but are rather the work of intelligence agencies telling the media what is to be found in them. ”Small wonder The News and Jang give the source of the report as ‘Agencies’,” it says. “Question: How stupid do the ‘Agencies’ really think Pakistanis are?”

This is terribly confusing, as it is hard enough to make sense of the WikiLeaks cables on India and Pakistan, without having to filter out what intelligence agencies/media say about what may or may not be in that huge database of leaked U.S. embassy reports.

As it is, we have to keep in mind the idea that the cables are only as accurate (we assume) as the ambassadors who penned them were able to make them, given that they themselves were dependent on sources who might, or might not, have been telling the truth. They are not gospel (and odd that in Pakistan which tends to distrust everything the Americans say, they are being treated as such.)

So two points – one on Baluchistan, and the other on the media in India and Pakistan.

For background, Islamabad accuses India of using its presence in Afghanistan to destabilise Pakistan, particularly by funding and arming separatists in Baluchistan. India denies this, and says it is interested only in promoting development in Afghanistan. The Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad particularly trouble Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which sees them as bases for alleged nefarious activity by its rival, India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) spy agency.

As far as I can make out, there is nothing in the WikiLeaks cables on Baluchistan that I haven’t already heard. And if I have heard them, you can be sure that governments have heard them too and tailored their policies accordingly, so we shouldn’t treat them as a game-changer.

On Baluchistan:

A U.S. embassy cable sent shortly after the 2008 Mumbai attack says the British High Commission in Islamabad feared an Indian response might include, ”at a minimum, increase GOI (government of India) covert activities in Balochistan or even an aerial bombardment of LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) camps in Azad, Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).”

The Guardian newspaper, which was given advance access to the cables, adds that “The British fears of ‘ramped-up’ Indian aid to militant nationalists in Balochistan highlights an assertion found elsewhere in the cables: that British intelligence strongly believes New Delhi is covertly supporting the insurgency in reaction to alleged Pakistani support for LeT.”

I have not yet found any cables which give an independent U.S. view of the allegations of Indian involvement in Baluchistan. If someone has the links, do please post them.

A separate series of cables, reported by The Guardian with links to copies of the cables, highlights tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the fate of fugitive Baluch separatist leader Bramdagh Bugti, whose grandfather was killed in a military operation in Baluchistan in 2006. If you search for Bugti on The Guardian website you can find more of the back-story on this.

I personally thought this was common knowledge, but maybe it is more controversial, and complicated, than I realised.

On the media:

I don’t know what is happening in Baluchistan. I listen to British, Indian and Pakistani analysts and sources to try to form an informed view. Short of going there, hanging around outside/inside the Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad, and spending time with Baluch separatists, I can’t possibly know for sure. But I’m still a bit troubled that the media is not asking enough questions - in either country.

A quick trawl of recent stories on Google threw up this story from the Times Now TV channel (I’m using this as a convenient example to explain a point, but it is not untypical):

“Government sources on Saturday (November 27) denied former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s claims that India is responsible for creating unrest in the Balochistan region. Sources told TIMES NOW that India’s conduct on Balochistan was like an open book … ”

Whatever is going on in Baluchistan, it is not “an open book”. You can’t have an open book in a region where journalists can’t travel easily and safely.

And you don’t have ”an open book” when it comes to India and Pakistan. When I first started researching the Siachen war - another battle between India and Pakistan that took place away from the public eye – I had the (with hindsight naive) idea that at the very least I would be able to match Indian and Pakistani versions and where I found them to overlap, discern a kernel of truth. In the end, I discovered I often could not even match accounts by people who fought on the same side on the same day. So let’s none of us assume we know what is happening in remote Baluchistan.