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'Memogate' scandal reveals civil-military splits

November 18, 2011

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President Asif Ali Zardari. — Reuters

ISLAMABAD: Publication of a secret memo asking Washington for help reining in the Pakistani military further ignited a scandal Friday threatening Pakistan's US ambassador and exposing the rift between its shaky government and the country's powerful generals.

The ambassador, Husain Haqqani, has denied having anything to do with a memo delivered to the US military chief asking for help with the military because of the domestic turmoil triggered by the US raid that killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

The ''memogate'' scandal is adding to pressures on the already deeply unpopular government.

Some analysts have speculated that President Asif Ali Zardari himself could be in danger if charges that he signed off on the memo gain traction.

''The target is not me, the target is President Zardari and Pakistani democracy,'' Haqqani said.

Though Pakistan has a civilian president, the military retains vast political and economic power.

It has ruled Pakistan, directly or indirectly, for most of its six-decade existence, and fiercely resisted attempts by civilian leaders to curb its role.

Haqqani is alleged to have written a memo to Adm. Mike Mullen, the top US military officer at the time, asking for his assistance in installing a ''new security team'' in Islamabad that would be friendly to Washington.

A Pakistani English-language newspaper and Foreign Policy's website on Friday published the text of the memo. After initially denying any knowledge of the document, Mullen's spokesman confirmed he received it but ignored it because it was not credible.

Haqqani insists he had nothing to do with the memo. If authentic, it would reinforce politically toxic charges that the government is colluding with the United States against the interests of the country and its army.

Though Washington pumps huge amounts of aid into the country, the US is highly unpopular there.

The affair has been whipped up by critics of the government and those close to the military. Haqqani has offered to resign over the affair, and Zardari could become a target if claims that he approved the memo prove credible.

Some say Zardari will have no choice but to dismiss Haqqani, a close ally. Zardari's spokesman said Thursday that the government had not decided what action, if any, to take against the envoy, who has been summoned to Islamabad to explain the scandal.

The Pakistani newspaper also printed what it said were transcripts of Blackberry messenger conversations between Haqqani and Mansoor Ijaz, a US citizen of Pakistani origin who claims to have delivered the memo to Mullen via an intermediary, on the orders of Haqqani.

The conversations show Haqqani allegedly discussing the wording of the memo with Ijaz and telling him to go ahead.

''Ball is in play now. Make sure you have protected your flanks,'' Ijaz allegedly tells Haqqani after handing over the memo.

The memo also accuses Pakistan army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani of plotting to bring down the government in the aftermath of the bin Laden assassination, which led to intense and highly unusual domestic criticism of the army. It asks Mullen for his ''direct intervention'' with Kayani to stop this.

Some analysts have questioned the logic of this, suggesting the affair is a conspiracy cooked up by the military to embarrass the government or remove Haqqani.

''Could Haqqani/Zardari be that staggeringly out of touch with reality,'' wrote Cyril Almeida, a political commentator, in Dawn newspaper.

''The more likely, though far from certain scenario? The boys (the army establishment) are up to their tricks again.''

Ijaz initially broke the news of the scandal himself in an Oct. 10 column in the Financial Times, adding to the general murkiness surrounding the affair.

He claimed in an interview with Dawn that he wrote the column to defend Mullen's criticism of Pakistan's alleged support for militants and mentioned the memo to strengthen his argument.

Ijaz has a history of making claims to be well connected with US politicians. Under the Clinton administration, he said US officials told him Sudan was willing to turn over then-fugitive bin Laden, who was taking refuge there.

Ijaz said Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger rejected the deal because he was unwilling to do business with Sudan —a claim that Berger immediately denied.

Ansar Abbasi, a newspaper editor often said to be a proxy for the military establishment, said if Haqqani is involved in the affair, he should be tried for treason.