The Washington Diplomat / October 2008
By Larry Luxner
On Dec. 27, 2007, Husain Haqqani was at home in Brookline, Mass., when the phone rang. “Someone told me to turn on CNN immediately,” he recalled. TV images were broadcasting horrifying footage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination as she was addressing a large rally of supporters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. “I immediately called my wife, who is a member of Parliament and was with her. It was devastating.”
Only two days earlier, Bhutto had completed the manuscript of her 328-page autobiography, “Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West,” and had emailed it to Haqqani and Mark Siegel, a Washington lobbyist who helped her write the book. And following an earlier assassination attempt in Karachi that killed 179 people, Bhutto had also sent an e-mail warning that if anything were to happen to her, the country’s then president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, would be partly to blame.
“By now, two or three local TV crews had arrived at my home in Boston,” Haqqani said. “I rushed to the TV studio at Boston University and spent all day as her spokesman, giving interviews. On my laptop, I wrote an opinion piece that was published the next morning in the Wall Street Journal.”
Not a surprising course of action for a seasoned journalist who came from a conservative Muslim background and started writing when he was 16. After graduating from college, Haqqani moved to Hong Kong, where he covered East Asian and Islamic affairs for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He later returned home to cover Pakistan and Afghanistan for that same magazine.
At the age of 34, Haqqani switched gears and launched his political career, convincing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to send him to Colombo as Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka. But he soon returned to campaign for Bhutto, who by 1993 had replaced Sharif as Pakistan’s head of state.
“After that, there was no turning back,” Haqqani mused. “I used to say that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up, or a professor. And sometimes I’d say that I wanted to be a diplomat or even an ambassador. Now, at the age of 52, thank God, I’ve been all three.”
Given the current tumultuous state of bilateral relations though, being Islamabad’s envoy in Washington isn’t a job many Pakistanis would even want.
Since Haqqani presented his credentials to President Bush at the end of May, U.S.-Pakistani ties have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. The resignation of Musharraf, an ally in Bush’s war on terrorism, and the installation of a democratically elected civilian government has shifted the fundamental dynamics of Pakistani-U.S. relations. In addition, frequent incursions by U.S. aircraft into Pakistani airspace — and more recently ground attacks against Taliban targets in the autonomous region of South Waziristan, close to Pakistan’s mountainous border with Afghanistan — have infuriated Pakistanis and fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment across this nation of some 170 million.
Mohammed Sadiq, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, condemned the latest raids, which killed at least 15 civilians, as “a gross violation of Pakistan’s territory” and “a grave provocation.” The ministry has lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, though the State Department has given no assurances that the United States will discontinue such raids — nor have either of the two U.S. presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain. Pakistan in turn may not wait for diplomatic assurances, with troops already sporadically firing on U.S. helicopters that cross into Pakistani territory.
To that end, the country’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, vowed that he would not allow any foreign power to violate the country’s sovereignty “in the name of combating terrorism” and that his government would free Pakistan from the “shackles of terrorism.” Zardari (Bhutto’s widower) made the declaration in his first address to Parliament, which came just hours before a massive suicide bombing killed more than 50 people at a luxury Marriott hotel in downtown Islamabad, part of a wave of high-profile terror attacks in recent months that have cast doubt on the fragile new coalition government’s ability to crack down on Islamist militants.
Immediately following the attack, the United States expressed its solidarity with the new government: “This barbaric attack comes during the month of Ramadan, only underscoring that those responsible have no respect for the principles of their faith,” the State Department said in an official statement. “This strike to the heart of the Pakistani capital leaves no doubt as to the intentions of these extremist elements. Their goal is to create mayhem and weaken the institutions of government so that they may operate unfettered while spreading their intolerance. The United States will continue to stand with the Pakistani people and their democratically elected government as it confronts this scourge.”
But many experts say radical factions will continue to test the new government and Zardari, who on the one hand faces strong U.S. pressure to take on extremists but equally strong domestic criticism from those who don’t want him to become Washington’s lackey, especially in the wake of U.S. incursions into their country. Indeed, the bombing of the Marriott, Islamabad's most prominent American business hotel, may only exacerbate tensions with the United States over the degree to which the new government is committed to fighting terrorism.
“This attack will create more of a disconnect in terms of how the U.S. looks at terrorism in Pakistan and how Pakistan looks at it,” Hassan Abbas, a researcher on Pakistani politics at Harvard University, told Bloomberg. “The U.S. will see terrorism in Pakistan getting stronger and they will think if Pakistan can’t control it then they will take control of it. Pakistan will be thinking that U.S. involvement over the past years has led to this reaction.”
Haqqani, in a lengthy interview with The Washington Diplomat on Sept. 16 — days before the Marriott attack — played down the mounting divisions between the two countries, attempting to put a positive spin on overall bilateral relations.
“No Pakistani wants foreign troops on Pakistani soil. And the people who understand that region know it is not in America’s advantage to land troops in Pakistan,” he told us. “But a lot of this is political noise. People here are asking why Osama bin Laden hasn’t been found in seven years. Why has the U.S. not succeeded in stabilizing Afghanistan in the border areas? So a simplistic answer is that we’re going to do something about Pakistan. I think once the American elections are held, we’ll go back to the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and elected political leaders of the United States working with Pakistan’s leadership and make this a collective effort.”
Ironically, this journalist-cum-diplomat puts at least part of the blame on, of all things, the media.
“The state of U.S.-Pakistan relations is much better than it looks in the pages of some newspapers because the papers only focus on events, not the overall process,” he argues. “Our two countries are working out ways of making the war against terror a more effective war, in which the leading role will be played by Pakistan and Afghanistan.” To that effect, Zardari appeared with Afghan President Hamid Karzai only hours after Zardari’s inauguration in early September, pledging to work with Karzai to resolve long-standing tensions and fight the violent Taliban insurgency along the two countries’ 1,510 mile-long border.
“The war against terror is not going to be won by one partner in that war threatening another. It’ll be won by all partners working together,” Haqqani says. “That means Afghanistan, Pakistan, NATO and the United States. Once the political noise subsides, Americans will find that a democratic Pakistan is a better ally in the war against terror.”
As might be expected, not all Pakistanis like Haqqani. In fact, some people downright hate him. The veteran journalist has contributed op-eds and articles to dozens of publications — including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Financial Times in London and International Herald Tribune— and appeared regularly on television news shows from the BBC to CNN. But a Google search for his name also immediately brings up inflammatory articles with titles such as “Husain Haqqani: Dangerous 5th Column or Selfish Opportunist” and “Exposing Husain Ahmed Haqqani: A Zionist Stooge.”
Haqqani, dismissing such criticism, claims his troubled country now has “all the fundamentals in place” for political stability.
“Political transitions are always difficult, but Pakistan has effected systemic change. For the first time, we have removed a military dictator without a coup or bloodshed in the streets,” he says. “There will still be political squabbles and differences of opinion, but the fundamentals are in place for the government to come and go in an orderly manner.”
Even so, he told The Diplomat,“President Musharraf left Pakistan with a very bad economy. In his last year and a half, as popular resentment against him mounted, he tried to become popular by not passing on the higher costs of fuel and food, thereby creating an enormous fiscal deficit. Secondly, he did not take key decisions relating to the war against terror. Many groups he claimed to have banned continued to function underground.”
As for Musharraf, the ambassador says the disgraced president is living a quiet life in the same house outside Islamabad that he occupied before, but that the new government has no intention of hounding him.
“Musharraf will not be victimized or made a target of any vendetta. It is not in Pakistan’s interest,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean we will not [uphold] the rule of law. His government failed in providing Benazir Bhutto with adequate security, and now that the U.N. is investigating the matter, we will wait for the investigation to be completed.”
Meanwhile, Haqqani’s more immediate focus as ambassador in Washington is to encourage continuity and predictability in an all-too-often, rocky, up-and-down relationship. “For too long, our relationship has been one between certain individuals in the U.S. and Pakistan. This has created anti-Americanism,” he explains. “We are on the verge of a major shift in our worldview — we want to have close relations with Afghanistan, and we want to negotiate all our outstanding disputes with India, including Kashmir, and find an amicable solution to these problems. So my priority is to expand the range of U.S.-Pakistani relations and make it a stable relationship instead of a yoyo relationship.” (Also see “New Pakistani Envoy: No More Yoyo Strategy” in the July 3, 2008, news column of the Diplomatic Pouch online.)
According to Haqqani, ending the so-called short-sightedness that has characterized U.S.-Pakistani relations in the past will require an end to the U.S. pattern of heavy aid to Pakistan followed by sanctions.
“That’s how it’s been since 1954,” he complains. “I don’t think it can be done during the tenure of one ambassador, but I want to lay the foundations of a relationship that is multidimensional: political, military, cultural, economic and social.”
With 172.8 million people as of July 2009, Pakistan ranks as the world’s sixth largest country in population; only China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil have more people. But it remains a desperately poor country. Its annual per-capita income of $720 is lower than that of India ($820), though Pakistan is still much better off than Afghanistan, where per-capita income remains below $300 a year.
Because of its high growth rate, Pakistan is expected to have 208 million people by 2020. Some 80 percent of the population is Sunni Muslims, with Shiites comprising most of the remainder. It has the second-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. That, combined with the fact that Pakistan also has nuclear weapons capability, makes a lot of Americans uneasy — especially given the country’s recent political instability and rise in Islamic fundamentalism. Haqqani though claims these fears have been greatly exaggerated.
“Pakistan has acted very responsibly in relation to its nuclear weapons capability,” he insists. “We acquired these weapons because of a regional threat, not because it wanted to use them internationally. We have always cooperated with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and have put the whole Khan affair behind us. His network has been finished off,” he says, referring to A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program who was implicated in a nuclear proliferation smuggling ring to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Haqqani notes though that “Pakistan has not been accused of any proliferation-related activity or any irresponsible behavior in any way.”
He also had nothing negative to say about a recent nuclear agreement between the United States and India, Pakistan’s historic archrival. The deal lifts the long-standing U.S. moratorium on nuclear trade with India and provides U.S. assistance to India’s civilian nuclear energy program — even though critics say it reverses half a century of U.S. nonproliferation efforts and undermines attempts to prevent countries such as Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons.
“The United States has opened the way for non-nuclear proliferation nations like Pakistan, Israel and India to acquire civilian nuclear technology,” he says. “We hope that now, Pakistan will also be considered for a similar arrangement. Pakistan has a burgeoning population and its energy needs are increasing rapidly. It makes sense for us to have nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.”
With Bhutto and Musharraf both gone from the scene, Pakistan appears to be heading in a very new, albeit still very unpredictable direction. As for Haqqani’s own ambitions, all he’ll say is that “I’m a very pragmatic person. I know I’m a political appointee, and my tenure here depends on having the support of Pakistan’s political leadership for as long as it lasts.”