Neighbors / On Condition They Smuggle in Good Whiskey

WikiLeaks filled in a picture we already knew about corruption

The WikiLeaks documents brought a great deal of joy to the proponents of an Arab-Israeli coalition. They received proof that there is no need for a peace treaty or exhausting processes of compromise. The Arabs - with the exception of Hamas Palestinians, the Syrians, the Sudanese and the Iraqis - are all in the same boat as Israel, cuddling up together in hatred of Iran.

However, not merely hatred of Iran has built this new brotherhood. "Out stealing horses" together with the United States also indicates the common denominator between the countries of the region and Israel. For example, in one of the WikiLeaks dispatches, the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, jokes with John Brennan, President Barack Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, about the smuggling of arms, drugs and whiskey from Djibouti to Yemen. "I have no objection to the smuggling of whiskey," the Yemeni leader says to his interlocutor, "on condition it is top quality whiskey."

Obama, Karzai, and Zardi - AP - 2009

Saleh also proposes to General David Petraeus, the commander of the American forces in Afghanistan, to mislead the citizens of Yemen. "We'll tell them that the bombs you're dropping on Al-Qaida in Yemen are our bombs and not yours," he says, with the intention of preventing anti-American sentiment such as appeared in Afghanistan and Pakistan when civilians were bombed.

It is well-known that corruption runs deep in Afghanistan. There was no need for secret dispatches to learn about the murky deals being done with ministers or the brother of President Hamid Karzai by contractors in Afghanistan. The newspapers have reported fully about the gigantic sums those contractors raked in and shared with those close to the ruling powers. Still, it's interesting to learn that bribes are paid at four stages. For example, when a tender for a civilian project funded by the American administration or the donor countries is published, a bribe is offered - at the stage of examining the tender; when requesting building permits for the project; at the construction stage; and even when the ribbon is being cut during the dedication ceremony.

U.S. wants fees

Iran's assistance to ministers and senior Afghan officials is also no secret, but the dispatches also show that the Americans know how to take advantage of the situation. Thus, one document reveals details of how Germany threatened to cancel its contribution to the fund for building the Afghani army because the Americans wanted to charge 15 percent as "management fees." Another dispatch talks about how security contractors who were supposed to train the Afghani police used to take drugs and hire "dancing children" to amuse themselves.

To what extent can the Americans rely on Karzai? This subject is covered extensively in the dispatches from a number of world capitals in which senior American officials and ambassadors confided in their Arab interlocutors in describing the man who was once their hope. "We cannot see a real partner in Karzai," U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry wrote. Karzai suffers from an innate lack of confidence, he said, and lacks understanding of the most basic principles of country building.

In public, both Obama, and his predecessor George W. Bush, would praise the Afghan president who was appointed by the West. Ten months after Eikenberry's dispatch, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a television interview that "Karzai is a partner" and during a reception in his honor she praised him for fighting the corruption in his country. We apparently need to wait for the next leak from the embassies of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in Washington to learn how the Arab leaders assessed Clinton and Obama.

Pakistan worries Riyadh

If Afghanistan is more of a military base than a state, it transpires that Pakistan is a focal point that arouses concern in Saudi Arabia - no less and perhaps even more than Iran. In a conversation between Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Prince Mohammed bin Naif, Saudi Arabia's deputy interior minister, the Saudi prince expressed his deep fear that Pakistan would break into separate entities and said he believed the Pakistani army was the most important guarantee the country would not collapse.

According to the dispatch sent by the American embassy in Riyadh, the Saudi prince said that while his country would not support a military coup in Pakistan, "the prince did not appear to be concerned [at the thought] that the Pakistani chief of staff would become the de facto ruler of the country."

Holbrooke asked Saudi Arabia to extend assistance to Pakistan but then it also became clear to him that the king was disgusted with the corruption in Pakistan. Holbrooke did not really respond to this Saudi claim - apparently the corruption in Pakistan was less of a concern to the Americans than the stability of the regime. It's interesting that the king of Saudi Arabia, a country that is not exactly a shining example of integrity, found it necessary to criticize his Pakistani colleagues. But that is how things are when Saudi Arabia employs some 800,000 Pakistanis on its soil.

What is no less interesting is the extent of Riyadh's involvement in affairs in Afghanistan and Pakistan so its position is an integral part of the considerations that Washington takes into account. Holbrooke therefore makes it clear to his Saudi interlocutors that Washington can tolerate "a certain amount" of instability in Afghanistan but not together with instability in Pakistan because of the nuclear weapons Pakistan has, its fragile politics and the ties with India. The Saudis agree to the American approach but feel the American concern for democracy in Pakistan could "interfere with" the establishment of a strong military regime there.

Democracy is indeed a serious problem. Perhaps there is now an opportunity to hold a regional conference of "the countries that hate Iran in the Middle East" to discuss the issue of democracy as an obstacle to stability and peace.