Members of President Barack Obama's national security team were casting about last fall for ways to counter al Qaeda fighters who had taken refuge across the Afghan border. So they asked the U.S. embassy in Pakistan to weigh in.
They probably didn't get the answer they were hoping for, though. Instead, Anne W. Patterson, then the ambassador in Islamabad, responded by firing off a no-nonsense cable to Washington explaining the limits of American power.
In the cable, Patterson described Pakistan's complicated political psychology and concluded that neither of the traditional sources of U.S. strength -- finances and firepower -- would sever the link between Pakistan's government and the Taliban, and, consequently, al Qaeda.
"No amount of money" would do it, she wrote. Similarly, "the notion that precision or long-range counter-terrorism efforts can suffice are equally illusory."
Pakistan has received more than $10 billion in U.S. aid since 9/11, and has allowed the U.S. to launch drone attacks in its ungoverned tribal areas. But there are no shortcuts, she argued, writing:
In response to queries posed by the National Security Council, Embassy Islamabad believes that it is not/not possible to counter al-Qaeda in Pakistan absent a comprehensive strategy that 1) addresses the interlinked Taliban threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2) brings about stable, civilian government in Afghanistan, and 3) reexamines the broader role of India in the region.
The Guardian, one of the newspaper dribbling out the cables, has more:
Pakistan's army is covertly sponsoring four major militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban and Mumbai attackers Lashkar-e-Taiba, and... "there is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance ... as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups," Anne Patterson wrote in a secret review of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy in September 2009.
The assessment highlights a stark contradiction -- that one of Washington's key allies is quietly propping up its enemies -- and is an admission of the limits of US power in a country that still views India, not the Taliban, as its principal threat....
The cables betray much American frustration and anger at alleged Pakistani duplicity, but there is also questioning of America's own covert policies. "Unilateral targeting" of al-Qaida operatives in the tribal belt -- a euphemism for CIA-directed drone strikes -- had killed 10 of the 20 top al-Qaida leaders, Patterson noted last year. But the drones could not entirely eliminate the al-Qaida leadership and ran the greater risk of "destabilising the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis without finally achieving the goal".
The Guardian credits Patterson with "fresh thinking" for her suggestion that the only way to end Pakistani support for the Taliban was to address the government's paranoia based on its insecurity toward India and America.
"We need to reassess Indian involvement in Afghanistan and our own policies towards India, including the growing military relationship through sizeable conventional arms sales, as all of this feeds Pakistani establishment paranoia and pushes them closer to both Afghan and Kashmir-focused terrorist groups while reinforcing doubts about US intentions," Patterson wrote.
But that's a very controversial suggestion, as American politicians are pursuing even closer relations with India.
The cables also offer an unprecedented glimpse into covert U.S. operations in Pakistan.
The Guardian also reports on U.S. and British fears about Pakistan's nuclear weapons. In another cable, Patterson writes: "Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon."
Patterson, a distinguished career foreign service official, is emerging as one of the heroes of Cablegate due to her straight-shooting messages.
She was appointed ambassador to Pakistan by George W. Bush in 2007, and returned to Washington last month after more than three years at that notoriously difficult posting.
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.