KABUL, Afghanistan — A top government official caught with $52 million dollars? The president’s brother a “corrupt drugs baron? Hamid Karzai himself “weak” and “prone to conspiracy”? In Afghanistan, such “news” items have long since failed to shock, or even raise the occasional eyebrow.
Forget the fact that Afghan websites, not to mention venerable international publications, have already had a field day with both issues.
Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president’s younger half-brother, and the undisputed chief of almost every aspect of life in Kandahar province, has been raked over the coals in the media for years. The story of former First Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud being caught in Dubai with $52 million in cash — which he was allowed to keep — has stimulated more discussion of the windfall’s weight than of its provenance.
(According to the U.S. Treasury, $1 million in $100 bills weighs about 22 pounds. So $52 million in $100 bills weighs about 1,150 pounds, or more than twice the weight of two male Bengal tigers.)
“The leaks say that Karzai’s government is weak — what’s new about that?” said Ahmad Saeedi, a former diplomat. “These things have already been said. It’s like going to a fortune-teller — all you get is what you already know. The Afghan government is corrupt? The president’s brother is involved with drugs? Everybody knows this, the same as they know that Pakistan is meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs. It has all been said a thousand times already.”
But the latest WikiLeaks documents — over 250,000 diplomatic cables showing internal debates and judgments about world leaders, often unfavorable — has succeeded in convincing the citizens of this beleaguered country that the United States cannot be trusted. Worse still, many in Afghanistan think that the United States has organized the leaks for its own, unspecified but undoubtedly nefarious, purposes.
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The substance of the leaks has barely moved the needle on public indignation — the petty, sometimes mean-spirited characterizations such as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s “fecklessness” or Angela Merkel’s lack of cooperativeness are hardly the stuff of public protests in a land where issues of life and death dominate the news.
But the fact that diplomatic traffic is no longer seen as confidential, and that any conversation can be splashed over the real and virtual front pages of the world, has many people fuming.
“This can lead to a crisis in confidence [in the United States],” said Wahid Mojda, a Kabul-based political analyst. “Some of these documents can destroy America’s relationships with other countries — look at the Kremlin’s comments about these leaks, or China’s reaction.”
Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave an interview to CNN’s Larry King in which he was asked for his reaction to comments leaked in the cables to the effect that “Russian democracy had disappeared.”
While downplaying the significance of the leaks, Putin firmly dismissed the substance of the remarks, calling them “slander.”
China, for its part, was also unhappy with WikiLeaks' revelations that it had been behind a sustained hacking campaign against Google last year. It is also bristling at diplomatic cables hinting that China was not opposed to the reunification of the two Koreas — something that could complicate Beijing’s future relations with Pyongyang.
The cables have left Afghans wondering just who is in charge in Washington. Many see the flood of information as part of a carefully orchestrated campaign inside the U.S. government — although no one yet has come up with a logical explanation as to why U.S. President Barack Obama, or anyone in Washington for that matter, would so determinedly want to shoot himself in the foot.
“I think there is some reason behind these leaks,” Mojda said. “It is not clear what these reasons are. But I think there will be more documents, even more sensitive and they will be leaked to the public. What is happening now is that some people are preparing the way for these future leaks with the present revelations.”
Afghans have a touching faith in the omnipotence of the U.S. government — and they are very suspicious of the loud protests coming out of Washington against what they see as some pretty thin material.
“We are supposed to think that this was all done by some genius of technology — but the United States, with all its power, would not let anybody get access to such sensitive material without their knowledge,” Mojda added.
Saeedi echoed the sentiments.
“What I think is that the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence are behind this scenario,” he said. “America will release even more dangerous and sensitive documents aimed at other politicians. Now they are just laying the groundwork.”
Even more curiously, Saeedi has WikiLeaks and the U.S. government in cahoots over the scandal.
“I think it is clear that these WikiLeaks guys have a relationship with the Pentagon or the State Department,” he said.
This may come as a surprise to the many top U.S. officials who have come out against WikiLeaks and its Australian founder, Julian Assange.
Assange is now being sought as a criminal, accused of sexual misconduct. The WikiLeaks site was shut down for several hours on Tuesday by a determined cyber-attack, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told CNN over the weekend that WikiLeaks was endangering lives around the world with its revelations.
“I would hope that those who are responsible for this would, at some point in time, think about the responsibility that they have for lives that they're exposing and the potential that's there and stop leaking this information," he told CNN's Fareed Zakaria in an interview aired on Sunday.
None of that impresses Afghans, convinced that little happens without the knowledge and active participation of the U.S. government. Believing that the United States is consciously ruining its own international profile would be small potatoes in a country where many are convinced that U.S. troops actively aid the Taliban, prolonging the war for their own reasons.
“Who would dare to publish such documents against the will of the U.S. government?” Mojda asked. “There are hands behind the curtain on this.”
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