Mystery surrounds resignation of Pakistan's US ambassador


Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari speaks at a meeting with US President Barack Obama on Jan. 14, 2010 in the Oval Office of the White House. Pakistan's ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton look on.


Mandel Ngan

BOSTON — I wonder what Sherlock Holmes would make of the curious case of the resigning ambassador and the unsigned letter?

Events in Pakistan these days are often as exotic as anything in Dr. Watson’s casebook.

Pakistan’s able ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, was forced to resign after an American businessman of Pakistani descent, Mansour Ijaz, accused Haqqani of giving him a letter to deliver to the then American Chief of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen.

The Osama bin Laden raid had just taken place, an event deeply embarrassing to the Pakistani military, and the letter begged America to help prevent a Pakistani military coup against Pakistan’s feckless president, Asif Ali Zadari. In exchange, the letter offered the United States many things they desire, including the right to have armed forces on the ground chasing terrorists within Pakistan itself.

The Pakistani press, which is anything but dull, had a field day with the unsigned letter, reacting with outrage against this reported offer to abrogate Pakistan’s sovereignty. Haqqani denied writing the letter, but offered to resign just in order to get beyond the brouhaha.

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On the surface it seems ridiculous that Haqqani would send an unsigned letter to Adm. Mullen. Haqqani is one of the best-connected ambassadors in Washington, and Mullen used to spend more time on Pakistan than almost any other official in Washington. If Haqqani wanted to get a message to Mullen all he had to do was pick up the telephone, or drop over to the Pentagon to see him.

And why would Haqqani entrust a businessman with such a mission? And what were Ijaz’s motives in all this?

Haqqani said that it was up to President Zadari whether or not he remained as ambassador, but it seems Zadari was willing to throw Haqqani off the back of the sled.

Haqqani was known to be Zadari’s man. The widower of the slain Benizir Bhutto, Zadari was a last minute choice of the Pakistani People’s Party following a return to civilian rule after the last interlude of military rule.

In a deeper sense, Pakistan never did completely return to civilian rule. Indeed the tragedy of Pakistan has been that civilian rule has tended to atrophy because the military has stepped in to govern so often. And the sad truth is that Pakistan’s civilian rulers have tended, in recent years, to be either corrupt or inept, and in Pakistan people say Zadari is both. His nickname among the cognoscenti is “Slum Dog Billionaire.”

Even with a civilian president, the military controls Pakistan from behind-the-scenes. At first the United States was happy to see Zadari come to power. He was pro-American and someone with whom Washington felt it could deal. But as has happened so often in the past, the Americans began to neglect the civilian leadership, finding it was easier and more effective to deal directly with the military and its intelligence branch, Inter-service Intelligence, or ISI.

Although Haqqani was careful not to step over any red lines with the military when he was ambassador, he had written a book while at Boston University that criticized military rule.

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In “Pakistan, between Mosque and Military,” published in 2005, Haqqani wrote: “Support for the Pakistani military by the United States makes it difficult for Pakistan’s weak, secular, civil society to assert itself and wean Pakistan from the rhetoric of Islamist ideology … Although listed among the US allies in the war on terrorism, Pakistan cannot easily be characterized as either friend or foe.”

“Unless Pakistan’s all-powerful military can be persuaded to turn over power gradually to secular civilians and allow the secular politics of competing economic and regional interest to prevail over religious sentiment, the country’s vulnerability to radical Islamic politics will not wane,” Haqqani continued.

That sentence alone would have been enough to get him trouble with Pakistan’s generals. But that was written back in 2005. If Haqqani was framed, why wait until now? The answer may be that Haqqani was perceived as being too American because of his efforts to better relations between the two countries. In the climate of distrust that exists between the two countries, that might have been enough to trigger a move to oust Haqqani.

I don’t doubt for a minute that Haqqani would have worried about a possible coup against Zadari. After all, the Pakistani military was deeply humiliated by the bin Laden raid. But direct military rule is not the option it once was, and the military would much rather have some civilian take the heat for the mess Pakistan is in than rule directly.

Nonetheless, it is still possible that Zadari, whether through Haqqani or not, was sufficiently worried about a coup to attempt to get a message to Mullen through other than diplomatic channels. Admiral Mullen, in any case, saw, but took no action on the unsigned letter. How could he, when its provenance was so obscure?

Haqqani’s replacement, Sherry Rehman, is a former information minister, parliamentarian and human rights advocate who has stood up for women and minorities. Her opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which have been used to persecute Christians, has earned her death threats. Like Haqqani, she used to be a journalist.

Not the military’s first choice for ambassador, you might say? But the military has been courting Rehman ever since she fell out with the civilian government back in 2009. She might be just the right person, in Pakistan’s view, to deal with the Americans whom are thought to be sentimental about such things as women’s rights, Christians, and all that.

In any case, as Holmes would say, the game’s afoot!