| GEO World|
Clinton apologises for embarrassment to UK
| Updated at: 2203 PST, Saturday, December 04, 2010|
WASHINGTON: Hillary Clinton expressed her regret to the UK today for disparaging remarks made about British politicians and troops in secret US diplomatic cables.
Her remarks came as the US undertakes an expansive damage-limitation exercise to contain the impact on ties with allies caused by the latest WikiLeaks revelations, including the publication in the Guardian on Thursday of cables showing the extent of the US military's scorn for Britain's four-year stewardship of Helmand province.
"I personally want to convey to the government and the people of the United Kingdom both my deep respect and admiration for the extraordinary efforts and our regret if anything that was said by anyone suggested the contrary," the US secretary of state said. She added that it was essential for any government that its ministers, officials and advisers were able to speak frankly and in confidence with one another. "I think everyone knows that if we cannot speak openly and candidly with each other, we can't understand each other and we can't make policy that will benefit each other," she said.
"I have found in my many conversations in the last week that there is certainly an understanding of what diplomacy means."
Turning to humour as a means of defusing embarrassment, she added: "As one of my counterparts jokingly said: 'Don't worry about it - you should see what we say about you!'?"
However, the cables are far from being a laughing matter for foreign diplomats in Kabul who fear that the portrayal of the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and his government in a deeply unflattering light will lead to a further slump in US-Afghan relations.
Suspicions of tensions were fuelled yesterday when a promised face-to-face meeting between Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart failed to materialise.
It was called off, US officials said, because of bad weather - making it difficult for helicopters to fly Obama to Kabul from Bagram airbase, where he met troops. A videoconference planned in its place was also dropped, officials said, because of the weather. The two spoke by phone.
The US embassy, led by Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador who described Karzai in classified cables as "a weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation-building" has for the last week engaged in pre-emptive damage limitation. On Monday, Eikenberry released a statement saying: "The US is absolutely committed to building and strengthening a longterm partnership with the Afghan people and the Afghan government. Our shared goals do not change based on the release of purported diplomatic reporting from the past."
Hillary Clinton also phoned the Afghan president to reassure him of US support, but it remains to be seen whether the relationship will be weakened.
US diplomats in Kabul are furious with WikiLeaks, and believe it may have done real damage to the vital relationship.
One official said the embassy had not yet got over the leaking earlier this year of a cable that argued a troop surge was unlikely to succeed because Karzai's inept style of government meant the Afghan president was "not an adequate strategic partner".
"We never really recovered from the strategic partner cable, and we are worried this will make it worse," the official said.
With the government not working during the Afghan Friday weekend, there was no immediate official response, although a source close to Karzai's office said they were still absorbing all the news. Of even greater concern for the US is that private but critical remarks about Karzai made by cabinet ministers could lead to some of the country's few competent administrators losing their jobs.
They include Omar Zakhilwal, the highly regarded finance minister, who was quoted as saying that Karzai is "an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to report even the most bizarre stories or plots against him".
One western diplomat said it was hard to know whether Zakhilwal would cling on: "In a normal country it would be the honourable thing to tender his resignation, but it's very hard to know."
The Canadian ambassador, William Crosbie, has reportedly offered to resign because of a published minute of a meeting with Eikenberry that said they must be "prepared for a confrontation with Karzai" to prevent the sort of rampant fraud that wrecked the 2009 presidential elections being allowed to occur in this year's parliamentary poll.
He said Canada would demand that the "international community must stand up for the silent majority or be blamed for letting Karzai and his family establish across the country the system of patronage and control that exists in Kandahar".
Pakistan's political elite also continued to grapple with the fallout from a storm of damaging revelations. Prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani chaired a meeting of ministers and generals following reports of perilous rifts.
According to the dispatches, the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, threatened to oust the president, Asif Zardari, last year, while Zardari was so fearful of his fate that he made plans for his possible assassination. Clinton also phoned Zardari yesterday in an attempt to put the embarrassment behind them.
Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said the leaks were "out of context" and "did not reflect the true nature of the official correspondence".
Meanwhile morning newspapers continued to lead with stories gleaned from the files, while several rightwing commentators claimed the document dump was part of a US conspiracy to smear Muslim countries.
In Kabul, there appeared to be widespread agreement on the streets with Eikenberry's assessment of Karzai as a weak leader.
Abdul Wahid, a Kabul shopkeeper, said: "I agree that he can't make decisions and he doesn't have a good administration to help him. The people around him don't want this government to succeed. Karzai himself is a good man but the people around him are a mafia."
Ahmad Behzad, a politician, said: "Karzai is seriously weak and that has given the terrorists the opportunity to destabilise the country. He is not governing in the best interests of the country. Eikenberry is right."
In Europe, the political fallout from the leaks also grew yesterday with the sacking of the German foreign minister's chief of staff, who kept the US embassy in Berlin posted on confidential negotiations to form Angela Merkel's new government.
Helmut Metzner, an aide to Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister and leader of the liberal Free Democrats, a junior partner in Merkel's coalition, was removed after admitting his role as a mole for the Americans in Berlin.
He was believed to be the first political casualty in Europe from the avalanche of leaked material which details US officials' views of Europe's top politicians.
On Monday, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported ambassador Philip Murphy telling the state department in Washington how an FDP insider had taken documents to the embassy in Berlin last year that detailed Merkel's lengthy confidential negotiations with Westerwelle on forming a new government.
The "fly on the wall, a young, up-and-coming party loyalist who was taking notes during the marathon talks" supplied a stream of inside information on the negotiations. Westerwelle initially insisted there was no mole. An FDP MP, Hans-Michael Goldmann, told the best selling Bildzeitung newspaper that a German ambassador abroad behaving like Murphy would be promptly "called home".
He added that Murphy had failed to apologise for the scandal. Merkel's spokesman said the government had no intention of demanding an apology from Murphy, nor of seeking his removal.