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Monday, December 6, 2010

Cablegate: US Asked Saudi Help with Pakistan

The United States has been pushing its ally Saudi Arabia to help stabilise Pakistan and Afghanistan, but it has struggled to overcome the kingdom’s deep mistrust of President Asif Ali Zardari and doubts over US strategy for reining in militants, leaked US diplomatic memos show.

Saudi Arabia has long had enormous influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, using its petro-wealth and religious ties to hard-liners in both countries. But Saudi Arabia has been cautious in mediating between the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government.

A 2008 effort to get the two sides together in the Saudi city of Makkah collapsed, and earlier this month Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal said the kingdom would not mediate with the Taliban unless the movement broke its ties with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

The memos released on the WikiLeaks website show differences in strategy between Washington and Saudi Arabia. American diplomats have been pressing the kingdom to throw its weight behind President Zardari with financial aid and intelligence help against the Pakistani Taliban and militant groups who have been crossing the border into Afghanistan to battle Nato and Afghan troops.

The pressure seems to have brought some grudging progress. But Saudi officials appear wary of aggressive action by the Pakistani military against militants in Pakistan, advising instead greater outreach to unruly tribes to rein in militants. Above all, they seem convinced Mr Zardari is too corrupt to keep the country together — and would prefer a military strongman or Saudi Arabia’s top ally in Pakistan, former prime minister and now opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud told the-then US security adviser James Jones that “we must reach out to tribal leaders and separate those we could work with from those we must fight”, and warned that the Pakistani military could lose its credibility among tribes if it was used to fight extremists.

Since Mr Zardari came to office in 2008, Pakistani diplomats have felt the coldness. The Pakistani ambassador to Riyadh, Umar Khan Alisherzai, complained to the Americans that the Saudis perceived Mr Zardari as “pro-Iranian… which made them apprehensive about working with him”.

“We have been punished by Saudi Arabia because our president talks to the Iranians,” Mr Alisherzai said, according to an October 2009 memo.

Instead, Saudi Arabia has pushed for a greater role for Mr Sharif. In 2008, before Mr Zardari’s election, Mr Saud touted Mr Sharif as “a force for stability” able to talk to “religious extremists who are not usually open to dialogue”, according to another US Embassy memo.

In March last year, President Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, pressed Saudi officials to work with Mr Zardari, warning that instability could lead to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Mr Holbrooke said US-Saudi cooperation on Pakistan “needed to rise to a higher level”. He urged the kingdom to provide economic assistance to Pakistan and help get Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif to work together, according to an embassy report on his talks with Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a senior counter-terror chief.Nearly a year later, in February, the US Embassy reported some progress, noting “close military and intelligence cooperation” between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and greater economic aid, with Saudi Arabia disbursing at that time half of $700 million it pledged to Pakistan.

It also said the kingdom had begun taking action against Saudis who send funding the Taliban and the militant group Laskhar-e-Taiba.

Still, it said, the Saudis were frustrated in efforts to reconcile between Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari, complaining that “compromise seemed alien to Pakistan politicians”.—AP

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