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Never forgive, never forget

November 24, 2011

NOW that they've got the scalp they wanted, a question: why did they want his scalp so bad?

A trip down memory lane may help. Husain Haqqani's last known flirtation with the army came in the early Musharraf years. Weaselling his way into the circle of Gen Rashid Qureshi, the principal military spokesperson at the time, Haqqani seemed to have his eye on the information minister slot.

For whatever reason, Qureshi didn't bite. Maybe he didn't believe Haqqani could deliver BB to Musharraf. Maybe he just used Haqqani and dumped him once his utility was over. Whatever the case, Haqqani was left a spurned man and soon took to reinventing himself as a democrat.

Suddenly, Haqqani was the go-to guy for all the anti-military, anti-mullah rhetoric and analysis you could possibly want. The capstone was his book, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military . His transformation complete, he was picked as the ambassador to the US by a PPP government.

At this stage, now back to having to deal with the army, Haqqani tried to play down his most recent past. Like Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan, the former chief minister of what was then NWFP, who banned his own book after coming to power, Haqqani tried to whistle past some of the more hard-hitting stuff he had written and said.

But if the army and AZ share a trait, it is this: they never forgive or forget. Haqqani was a former insider who had turned on the institution whose patronage he had sought. He was a marked man.

Worse, there were suspicions he was using his time in DC to convince the Americans to abandon their old policy of dealing with Pakistan through the military and to strengthen the civilians instead.

When the Kerry-Lugar crisis erupted, they tried to oust Haqqani. He survived. This time he got trapped and they weren't going to let go. Exit Haqqani.

It couldn't have come at a worse time in Pak-US relations. The mood in DC is growing more and more belligerent and more and more policymakers and legislators are wondering aloud if the time has come to declare Pakistan the enemy instead of an uneasy ally.

Had the army high command been smarter, they would have used the wily Haqqani's skills to their advantage. Cut a deal with him, use his contacts in DC to get tempers to cool down and figure out some kind of arrangement on the Pak-US front that better suits all sides.

A cornered man can be a useful man. Club him over the head and he's of use to no one. Tempt him to your side and his survival instinct will kick in. Alas, if smartness were a Pakistani trait, this would be a very different country.

When never-forgive-never-forget is your guiding principle in dealing with erstwhile allies, Haqqani's fate was always going to be the same: kicked to the kerb eventually.

Enter Sherry Rehman. The new ambassador brings with her the advantage of knowing many of the players in DC and is willing to listen to both the boys and the civilians on major policy issues. That's a good thing under the circumstances.

But in terms of hard work and smarts, Haqqani will be a tough act to follow. Obviously, Haqqani wasn't able to prevent Pak-US relations from nose-diving, but he is a relentless and intense political animal. Whether Sherry has the stamina and deftness necessary for navigating the treacherous waters of DC will be revealed soon enough.

Which leaves us with the matter of AZ and the boys. By appointing Sherry, did Zardari score an equaliser deep into stoppage time?

It's hard to tell so soon after the event, but it seems that the boys were so focused on getting rid of Haqqani that, while they would have liked one of their own to be installed in DC, they hadn't prepared a strong enough game plan on that front.

On the other side, it helped that Gilani has always liked Sherry and she had made her peace with Zardari after walking out as the Sharif-led long march was inching its way towards Islamabad. Perhaps because the PPP simply doesn't have the bench strength to pick solid replacements, Sherry walked away with the prize.

So, masterstroke or grand compromise with the boys, hard to say at this point.

With Haqqani down, who's next? Rehman Malik seems like a potential target, being the other 'security threat' that is frequently cited. But more sacrifices aren't Zardari's biggest problem. Lose a Haqqani or Malik and life still goes on.

Zardari's real focus has been on securing his government's re-election. The Haqqani ouster per se won't have any immediate impact on the domestic scenario, but the incident may help clarify some positions.

The Americans, who helped shove Haqqani out, weren't going to be Zardari's fervent supporters come election time and Zardari already had an inkling about that. Now, with his more effective lobbyist in the US sidelined, will American support for Zardari erode further?

Domestically, the army has pushed against the civilians and the civilians have taken another hit quietly. With Imran Khan still more of a dark horse than a frontrunner, Zardari will reasonably assume that the Haqqani blow isn't the beginning of the screws being turned against the government across the board.

But if Khan's politics become smarter and his appeal widens, Zardari will know it could be him in the cross-hairs eventually. So Zardari will be eager for a deal quickly, but he'll just have to wait and see if he gets one.

The writer is a member of staff.