The Washington Post published an exclusive on Saturday on a previously unreported batch of the U.S. intelligence documents leaked on the Discord messaging platform. The story looks at how countries in the Global South are trying to manage pressure or exploit opportunities from the Russia-Ukraine war and growing U.S.-China competition.
What makes this round of reporting on the Discord leaks different is that it’s the first to cover two important South Asian countries: India and Pakistan.
What the Leaked U.S. Intel Says About India and Pakistan
On Pakistan, the leaks addressed two U.S. intelligence reports.
The first discussed an “internal memo” drafted by Hina Rabbani Khar, a senior official in Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry, in which she argued that Pakistan can “no longer try to maintain a middle ground between China and the United States.” These efforts, Khar advised, jeopardized Pakistan’s ability to fully maximize its “real strategic” partnership with China.
The second U.S. intelligence report discussed a memo to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif by an aide advising him that succumbing to Western pressure to back a United Nations resolution condemning Russia would harm Pakistan’s ability to partner with Moscow on energy and trade.
On India, another U.S. intelligence assessment cited a conversation between the Indian and Russian national security advisors — Ajit Doval and Nikolay Patrushev. Doval made two assurances to his Russian counterpart: India would back Russia at multilateral forums and try to ensure that the Ukraine war didn’t come up at an upcoming G20 meeting. (India holds the G20 presidency this year.)
Why These Leaks Are Important
There are three major takeaways from these leaks.
One, they show the reach of the U.S. Intelligence Community. The U.S. obtained correspondence between senior officials in Pakistan either through a human intelligence source in the Pakistani government or through electronic surveillance. How it obtained knowledge of the Doval-Patrushev conversation is less clear. It could have been through a human intelligence source in India or Russia or via electronic surveillance of either country.
The Discord leaks, like previous ones, remind us that the U.S. spies on everyone: foes, friends, and even the Pope. (Something U.S. officials should keep in mind when their warnings to counterparts elsewhere of the dangers of reliance on China are met with skepticism.)
Two, the leaks provide a fuller picture of the internal debates within middle powers like Pakistan on how to balance great powers in this multipolar era. This is something I’ve been following closely in recent years. I’ve written on the efforts by Pakistan’s previous army chief and the current foreign minister to tilt toward the United States.
What the leaks reveal is that there’s been some pushback from within the Pakistani government from veteran hands like Khar who argue for a more careful approach. (Khar, to be clear, is a realist, not an anti-American hardliner.)
The story of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is long and sordid. But a more general lesson these internal Pakistani deliberations show is that many countries caught between the U.S. and China cannot afford to alienate Beijing in part because it provides what Washington cannot or will not. In Pakistan’s case, China provides an economic lifeline and the defense hardware to deter India.
Three, the leaks show the limits of the West’s attempts to cultivate India as a strategic partner. For over a decade, the consensus in Washington has been in favor of a policy of “strategic altruism” toward New Delhi. The idea is this: the U.S. should help India rise without asking for much in return because it would be invariably good for the West as a stronger India could balance China.
What strategic altruism fails to address is the closeness of India’s ties to Russia, a country whose revisionism threatens Europe and the U.S.-led world order. These leaks reveal that one of Modi’s two closest advisors assured Russia that its Ukraine war wouldn’t get a mention at the G20. (And in the end, the India-hosted G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in March — unlike the November summit in Indonesia — failed to produce a statement on the war.)
India is using the G20 platform to proclaim its arrival as a global power. Beyond posturing, it’s uninterested in putting in the work to achieve better outcomes for the Global South on issues like debt relief or to advance peace in Europe.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, there’s been little altruism from New Delhi — a beneficiary of the West’s strategic altruism. Instead, India has nakedly pursued its own self-interest, surging imports of Russian oil and then selling refined products from Russian crude to Europe. New Delhi may be well within its right to do so. But it’s important for the West to see India for what it is.
What to Watch Out For
Will Islamabad or New Delhi respond publicly to these leaks? They’ve received limited coverage in the Indian and Pakistani press so far. Given state influence over private media in both countries, India and Pakistan may be trying to avoid embarrassment or a public fight with the United States.