Over the weekend, WikiLeaks decided to drop what (if memory serves) is its largest single release to date from its cache of U.S. State Department emails, almost all of them from the U.S. Embassy in London over the past few years. We'll be picking through the good bits here over the next few days, although at first glance they seem short on blockbusters, which may explain why they haven't commanded much attention in the media. (That, and the whole dumping-hundreds-of-cables-on-a-Friday-night thing.)
The London cables mostly concern foreign policy issues where Britain's interests are closely aligned with the United States', the war in Afghanistan among them; the effort to thread the needle between the British government's commitment to the war and waning support for it among the British public is a common theme. One cable offers a lengthy account of then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's November 2008 meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, in which Karzai tells Miliband (in the cable's paraphrase) that "it would be difficult or impossible to hold a credible Presidential election" the following year in Afghanistan, ticking off five particularly problematic provinces. (On that much, he was right.)
Karzai also expresses optimism about the United States' new president-elect, Barack Obama, but in his conversation with Miliband you can see the seeds of the estrangement between the Afghan and American presidents that would characterize the years that followed. There's the issue of American-employed private contractors, who Karzai would order out of his country in August 2010:
Afghanistan wanted to end the way in which the Americans sub-contracted major parts of their aid program to "doubtful contractors." He was also concerned that many of the private security companies were little more than "criminal organizations." The same applied to some of the transport companies used by the U.S.; it had become apparent to Karzai that the transport companies were responsible for much of the insecurity on the highways, in order to extract higher fees and insurance payments from the Americans.
Karzai also tells Miliband that he's leery about the United States dispatching more soldiers to his country:
Karzai emphasized that more U.S. troops were not the answer. He hoped the Americans would consult the Afghan Government before sending more troops. Karzai said that the U.S. had failed to send the troops for which Karzai had asked in 2002, but now it might be too late.
Miliband brings up the inevitable question of how all of this ends, and according to the cable suggests that "reconciliation" -- presumably with the Taliban -- "subject to strict conditions, would obviously be part of that."
Karzai agreed, saying that he had consulted "the whole Afghan people," and they were all in favor of reconciliation. They wanted to "bring over the good guys, while excluding the bad guys." Karzai realizes that the U.S., Russia and Iran had doubts about reconciliation, but this was something that the Afghan people wanted, and which he was bound to press ahead.
Two weeks after a leaked cable cost a U.S. ambassador his job, another diplomat has found his life suddenly complicated by WikiLeaks -- this time in the Netherlands. Yesterday WikiLeaks published a September 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy in the Hague detailing U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder's efforts to keep the Dutch from bailing on the war in Afghanistan after 2010. Among Daalder's interlocutors is a Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs official named Pieter de Gooijer, who at one point in the conversation suggests a means by which Daalder could secure the further support of the Netherlands in the war effort:
De Gooijer encouraged Daalder to ask [U.S. Treasury] Secretary [Timothy] Geithner to tell [Dutch] Finance Minister [Wouter] Bos that the Netherlands would not have a seat in G20 discussions but for its contributions in Afghanistan. Bos is head of the Labor party and key to the Dutch cabinet's decision on Afghanistan.
Whatever efforts were ultimately made to persuade Bos failed; the Dutch cabinet collapsed last February over the issue of Afghanistan deployment, when the contingent of Labor ministers -- who remained staunchly opposed to keeping troops in the country -- resigned. Dutch troops pulled out of Afghanistan in August.
The new revelation doesn't look all that great for de Gooijer, who last week was named the Netherlands' ambassador to the European Union. Since the cable was published, his appointment has been blocked by Frans Timmermans, a Labor member of Parliament, on the grounds that de Gooijer can't be trusted. The Dutch government has recently proposed sending Dutch troops back to Afghanistan for an Afghan police training mission, but 70 percent of the respondents in a poll taken this month were opposed to the idea, as is Timmermans's party.
WikiLeaks also claimed its first private-sector casualty today, in the form of Berry Smutny, the CEO of the German space technology company OHB System AG. Smutny was fired after appearing in a WikiLeaks cable calling Galileo, a 4.5 billion-euros-and-counting European satellite navigation system on which OHB System is a contractor, a "stupid idea."
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If we've learned one thing from WikiLeaks, it's that the leaders of corrupt, former Soviet autocracies are very, very, strange people. Today's entry in the genre comes from Uzbekistan, where the U.S. Embassy managed to obtain a video showing the wives of Uzbek officials partying it up in style with the wives of senior organized-crime figures:
Post has obtained video footage of two events hosted by the family of Tashkent mafia chieftain Salim Abduvaliyev. (Note: Salim and his rival, Gafur Rakhimov, are Uzbekistan's top mobsters - refs A and B. End note.) XXXXXXXXXXXX Salim's wife and the wives of the GOU Ministers form a tight circle of friends.
3. (S) The engagement party for Salim,s son, Sardor, was held in July 2005 at Salim,s mansion in Gazelkent near Tashkent. Following tradition, only women attended the engagement party. The close-knit group of around twenty guests included the wives of Interior Minister Matlybov, Justice Minister Mustafayev, Finance Minister Azimov, and Foreign Minister Ganiev, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Kasimov's sister. Salim,s daughters also attended, along with the wives of leading businessmen Muhiddin Jamol, "UzbekSavdo" chairman Zafar Faiyziev, and "UzbekComuneHizmet" General Director Halmukhamedov.
4. (S) According to our contact, Salim did not attend the party, but provided each guest with a necklace worth $1,000. Jamol, a close friend of Salim's whose Alp Jamol conglomerate includes banks, supermarkets and shopping centers (ref C), was tasked with keeping the guests happy. The video shows Jamol handing out $100 bills to the guests as they dance. (Note: It is common in Uzbek culture for money to be given to women as they dance, and also to musicians. End note.) Video footage of the party also shows Salim,s fleet of black Mercedes-Benz cars.
5. (S) Our contact told Poloff that Salim's Gazelkent home was decorated by a Versace representative flown in for the job. Photos of Salim,s house reportedly appeared last year in the Russian magazine "Vysshee Obshchestvo" ("High Society"). (Note: Photos of Sardor's eventual wedding were published on a Russian website, www.elite.ru. End note.) According to our contact, Salim has now built another "palace," which will be his preferred dacha, while the Gazelkent estate will reportedly be used by his wife, lovers, and daughters.
(S) The birthday party for Salim,s wife, Shahlo, took place at a Tashkent restaurant in summer 2005. In addition to Salim,s daughter and son, guests at the birthday included former Foreign Minister Mahmudova and the wives of Foreign Minister Ganiev and Deputy Prime Minister Sultanov. The wives of "UzbekComuneHizmet" General Director Halmukhamedov and foreign-based oligarch Fatokh Shodiyev also attended, along with famous singer Yulduz Usmanova. According to the contact, most guests gave Shahlo $3,000 in cash, while Shodiyev's wife gave $10,000.
Do I detect a note of condescension in this embassy staffer's description of the Uzbek royalty's gaudy lifestyle? To quote one noted foreign-policy observer, "You can't blame 'em; they ain't never seen Versace sofas."
A story in the Guardian on Monday, reporting on another cable from the paper's WikiLeaks master cache, opens with a bang:
The United Nations' drugs czar told NATO that Afghan insurgents were withholding thousands of tonnes of heroin and treating their drugs like "savings accounts" to manipulate street prices in the west, according to a leaked US cable.
The cable is from May 2009, and details a briefing by Antonio Maria Costa, then the United Nations' top drug official, at NATO headquarters, on the occasion of the release of his office's 2009 Afghan opium survey. My first thought reading the Guardian piece was, Wow, the U.N. drug czar has no idea what he's talking about. Then I read the cable. It turns out this is what's actually in there:
Costa said that Afghanistan has 12,400 tons of opium stocks because it produces more than the world consumes. Costa believes the insurgency is withholding these stocks from the market and treating them like "savings accounts." He said the stocks pose a serious threat as it could be used to finance the insurgency. Costa encouraged intelligence organizations to keep focus on the storage and movement of Afghanistan's opium stocks.
Costa is talking about the price of unrefined opium within Afghanistan, not the price of the finished product in London or New York -- which means the Guardian is unfairly saddling Costa with its own rather large analytical error here. If you want the long explanation for why, read this very useful paper on the Afghan opium trade and counternarcotics strategy, released by New York University's Center for International Cooperation in June, written by drug policy experts Jonathan Caulkins, Mark Kleiman, and Jonathan Kulick. If you want the short answer, read this bit of it:
[T]he price of raw opium, and even refined heroin ready for export from Afghanistan, contributes only modestly to the retail prices facing heroin users in drug-importing countries -- the effect of falling opium prices in Afghanistan would be tiny in remote markets such as western Europe, larger but still quite modest in nearer markets, and substantial only within Afghanistan itself. Effects in the United States, if any, would be even smaller than those in western Europe, since the U.S. heroin market is currently supplied primarily from Colombia and Mexico.
Rising prices are similarly insignificantly affected by price fluctuations inside Afghanistan -- which is why supply-side-only counternarcotics strategies, in Afghanistan or anywhere else, tend to work poorly.
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Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir allegedly has $9 billion in oil money stashed in Britain.
American diplomats at the United Nations don't like to talk much about human rights anymore.
Joking about Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, or even above Venezuela, is ill-advised.
How Brazil got pharmaceutical companies to hand over cheap HIV/AIDS drugs.
WikiLeaks is banned there.
The Red Cross reported extensive torture of Kashmiris at Indian detention centers in Kashmir to the U.S. embassy in New Delhi in 2005.
Singapore's government owes an apology to basically every major country in Asia.
The Dalai Lama says fighting climate change is more important for Tibet than political independence.
The heir to the Gandhi family political dynasty thinks Hindu extremists are a bigger threat to India than Muslim ones.
Turkmen strongman Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov doesn't like people who are smarter than him.
Eric Clapton's weirdly persistent influence on North Korean politics.
Silvio Berlusconi for the win?
The German government is still not digging L. Ron Hubbard.
The Stockholm embassy discusses Sweden's WikiLeaks-enabling Pirate Party in a particularly meta cable.
The Azeri first lady's plastic surgery creates confusion among U.S. diplomats in Baku.
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is "bizarre" and "disturbed."
Do Arab leaders actually care about the Palestinians?
Hosni Mubarak thinks his son is a perfectionist.
Is the Egyptian military in "intellectual and social decline"?
The Arab League doesn't like Steven Spielberg.
Julian Assange is released on bail after a media-circus-attracting hearing, but not before Michael Moore manages to get involved. Now that he's out of jail, Assange is pretty chatty -- as is Vaughan Smith, the journalist and WikiLeaks supporter who's hosting him until his next court date.
Things are not going nearly so well for alleged Assange document source Bradley Manning.
Someone posts a manifesto on behalf of Anonymous, the ad-hoc group of hackers that has cyber-attacked an array of targets in solidarity with WikiLeaks over the past two weeks. The manifesto quotes KISS bassist Gene Simmons. A Greek web designer is arrested for it.
A lot of people think Assange should have been Time's 2010 person of the year. Richard Stengel, the magazine's managing editor, isn't one of them.
Would Henry David Thoreau join Anonymous?
Congress considers WikiLeaks.
Mark Prendergast, ombudsman for the U.S. military's official Stars and Stripes newspaper, argues that military personnel should be allowed to read the cables.
If WikiLeaks doesn't get things rolling a little faster, we'll be writing this blog for another 7.6 years.
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Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov generated yuks during the 1990s, given eccentricities such as his variable taste in hair color, his creative renaming of months, days, cities, and ports, and a megalomaniacal festooning of his photo and bust everywhere. But Niyazov also had less-amusing habits, such as truncating high-school education so that Turkmen students couldn't qualify for foreign universities -- not to mention his taste for big bribes. All of it made many people celebrate when he died of heart disease in 2006.
But as we learn in the latest WikiLeaks cables, not much has materially changed since President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov succeeded him. For starters, Berdymukhamedov is a dead ringer for Niyazov, as anyone visiting the country can see: The new president has taken down his predecessor's portraits and frequently replaced them with his own.
A Dec. 17, 2009 cable signed by Sylvia Reed Curran,the charge d'affaires in the U.S. embassy in Ashgabat, relates a chat with an unidentified source with apparent proximity to Berdymukhamedov. Turkmenistan's leader, Curran's source tells her, is "vain, fastidious, vindictive, a micro-manager, and a bit of an Akhal Teke nationalist." (Akhal Teke is a Turkmen tribal zone near Ashkabad. It is also a prized horse breed.) Later in the cable, Curran adds that the president is also "suspicious, guarded, strict,very conservative, a practiced liar, ‘a good actor,' and (again) vindictive." (Of course Berdymukhamedov himself might not agree with any of that, seeing as how he views himself as "an author, surgeon, pilot, sportsman [and] statesman,"Curran said.)
There is no graduate-level course in princeling etiquette that I know of, but the latest WikiLeaks cables suggest that diplomatic schools should perhaps offer one. Consider Azerbaijan's first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva (above), and her family, who according to a cable written in January control a bank, insurance, construction, media, telecommunications, real-estate and cosmetics companies, in addition to Baku's only Bentley dealership.
The cable, sent January 27 by Charge Donald Lu, is an impressive profile of Aliyeva. One section relates a story regarding her "substantial cosmetic surgery." During a 2008 visit to Baku by Lynne Cheney, the wife of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the youthful-looking Aliyeva and her two daughters mingled with White House, U.S. embassy and security staff while they awaited the arrival of the Cheney vehicle. "Which one of those is the mother?" a puzzled U.S. Secret Service agent asked of his colleagues, referring to the three Aliyeva women. No one could figure it out on sight, before one finally decided, "Well, logically the mother would probably stand in the middle." On the other hand, Lu found a downside to the facelift: "On television, in photos, and in person, she appears unable to show a full range of facial expression."
Of course, the bluebloods include not only the Aliyev family, but extend to old pals of late President Heydar Aliyev, the father of current president Ilham Aliyev. Such people are the equivalent of dukes. Topping the list is Kamaladdin Heydarov, the minister of emergency situations, whose father, Fattah, was a close associate of the late president, according to a followup cable that Lu sent to Washington on February 25. Heydarov, Lu writes, is Azerbaijan's second most-powerful titan next to Aliyeva.
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Is Tehran convinced the United States is out to steal its oil? Here's Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in a cable describing a Jan. 14, 2009, meeting in the capital city of Astana between Nazarbayev and U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, in which the Kazakh leader recounts his recent conversations with Iran's leaders:
[Nazarbayev] said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameni told him that even if Iran compromises on the nuclear issue, the United States would always find another reason to criticize "because they hate us -- all the United States wants is to conquer the entire region and steal the oil." General Petraeus interjected, "We could have bought all the oil in the region for 100 years for what we've spent in Iraq!" Nazarbayev, looking a bit amused, said, "I know. I'm just telling you what he said."
The cable, signed by Richard Hoagland, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, is also interesting for Nazarbayev's pretty shrewd insights into Afghan politics. Nazarbayev is worried about publicized efforts to bring the Taliban into the Kabul government. Petraeus, then the head of U.S. Central Command, replies that this is just an attempt to break up the movement, while roping certain elements into the power circle. That's all well and good, Nazarbayev replies, but suggests that the Taliban is all about control, and not sharing power: "The Taliban leadership will never change its position," Nazarbayev says.
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When two bloggers in Azerbaijan were thrown in jail last year for a satirical video making fun of the government of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, a (unnamed) source told the U.S. embassy in Baku that if you wanted to understand the mercurial ruler, you had to think of The Godfather: "He's not Michael Corleone," the source said of Aliyev; "he's Sonny."
The reference to Vito Corleone's sons in the famous Francis Ford Coppola film -- the first, Michael, pragmatic and calculating in his efforts to hang onto his family's organized crime empire after an attack on Vito; the second, Sonny, hot-tempered and preoccupied with vengeance -- sets a Baku embassy official off on an extended, and inspired, riff on the subject of which Corleone, exactly, the Caucasian strongman resembles most. The cable, filed by Charge d'Affaires Donald Lu, works off of the premise of John Hulsman's and A. Wess Mitchell's notion of the "Godfather Doctrine," but the author suggests that the comparison may be particularly apt in the Azeri case:
Because of family connections, dynastic succession, the strong arming of the opposition and the creation of an elaborate patronage/protection network, the Aliyev Administration has developed an "organized crime" image in some quarters, leading some analysts to see Ilham Aliyev at times in a mafia-like role.
The diplomat-essayist concludes that, in fact, Aliyev is a Michael abroad and a Sonny at home, crediting the president with maintaining the "clever, realistic foreign policy" of his father, President Heydar Aliyev, while savagely punishing his domestic enemies:
As Aliyev perceives a challenge to his authority or affronts to his family dignity, even minor ones, he and his inner circle are apt to react (or overreact), much to the detriment of the country's democratic development and movement toward Western alliances.
But the cable suggests that Aliyev's repressive domestic tendencies may be in part the work of his longtime presidential administrator, Ramiz Mehdiyev, and wonders,
Is [Mehdiyev] the puppet or the puppet-master? At age 71 and often seen in frail health, this is an increasingly important question. While the rule of 47-year-old Ilham Aliyev could continue for decades, it would be most likely without the benefit of his consigliere. Without Mehdiyev, it is not clear whom Aliyev will turn to for help in maintaining the same firm grip on the instruments of power.
(Thanks to FP contributor Haley Edwards for the tip.)
Someone in the Ashgabat embassay has a sense of humor. This Dec. 19, 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in the Turkmen capital contains a not-so flattering description of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (my emphasis):
Our source said Berdimuhamedov is very clean and neat and requires all around him to be the same. XXXXXXXXXXXX When Berdimuhamedov became the head of a dental clinic, he insisted that the other men who worked there had creases in their pants. About 30 years ago, when Berdimuhamedov owned an old Russian car, he would leave it at home if it rained and take a taxi instead.
4. (C) Berdimuhamedov apparently does not think all Turkmen are the same. He once told our source that the true and first Turkmen come from the area between Kaka and Baharly in Ahal Province. Other people are not real Turkmen.
5. (C) Berdimuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he’s not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people. Our source claimed Berdimuhamedov did not like America, Iran, or turkey, but likes China. (COMMENT: Berdimuhamedov probably views other countries in terms of what they can do for him and his country, rather than in terms of like or dislike. END COMMENT.) He also asserted that the president is not fond of either Uzbek President Karimov or Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev.
The cable also contains speculation that Berdimuhamedov has a 14-year old child with his Russian mistress. His wife has been living in London since 2007.
Among the most literary of the diplomatic cables released this week by WikiLeaks come from the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan. Of those, most interesting for me is the unusual, realtime window into the emotion, the ambition and the palpable anger embedded in the struggle for control of the country's oil and the power that goes with it in this nascent petrostate. Front and center on stage are among the biggest oilfields in the world -- Tengiz, Kashagan, and Karachaganak -- in addition to Chevron and Shell, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his powerful son-in-law, the princely Timur Kulibayev.
The takeaway: Not much has changed since Richard II.
One main pawn in the dramas is Maksat Idenov, a super-competent administrator who was put in charge of the Kazakh oil company KazMunaiGas, or KMG, but who is exposed in a pair of cables to be slow to grasp political reality: Nazarbayev obviously had flattered Idenov by telling him that his job was to administer the state's crown jewels -- its oilfields. And Idenov -- willfully ignoring the history of Nazarbayev conveying just such nonsense to one foolish minister after another over the last couple of decades in order to keep the trains running on time, while in fact his trusted son-in-law, Kulibayev, actually ran things -- had chosen to believe him.
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A mischievously written January 2010 missive from Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, reports that a cat may have tried to kill President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in November 2009:
Another incident reportedly occurred two months ago that was feared to be an assassination attempt. It was committed by a cat that ran in front of the President's car as he was traveling to his residence in the village of Archibil. (NOTE: Archabil, 20 kilometers from Ashgabat, is located in the foothills of the Kopet Dag Mountains and is surrounded by forest. END NOTE) A military lieutenant reported that an officer from the Presidential Security Regiment, responsible for safeguarding that particular area, was fired the following day.
The cable was signed by Sylvia Reed Curran, then the chargé d'affaires. In all seriousness, Curran does relay rumors that "[s]everal high ranking police officials were fired" after "a motorist crossed an intersection in front President Berdimuhamedov's motorcade as it moved through Ashgabat."
"[T]he driver of the vehicle was reportedly beaten and charged with attempted assassination," she writes.
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