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The Washington Diary

January 02, 2012

Deaths and departures had a greater impact on US-Pakistan relations in 2011 than any other development. One death that turned this relationship upside down was that of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, who died in a US military raid on his compound in Abbottabad.

His discovery in a Pakistani garrison town was noted by all Americans, Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. Surveys conducted after the raid showed that most Americans no longer consider Pakistan an ally.

The US military action deep inside Pakistan, without informing Islamabad, hurt Pakistanis too. It enhanced anti-American feelings and made it difficult for Pakistani leaders to openly proclaim their alliance with Washington.

Other deaths that had an equally negative impact on US-Pakistan relations were those of 24 Pakistani soldiers killed in a Nato air raid last month. Their deaths further strained already tense relations between the two countries. Since the Nato raid, Pakistan has closed a US airbase in Balochistan and also has blocked Nato supply routes to Afghanistan.

The situation deteriorated so rapidly that, according to the US media, the Obama administration has given up the hope of rebuilding its ties with Pakistan and is ready to look for new alliances in the region.

And this entire process started with deaths too, of two Pakistanis killed by CIA contractor Raymond Davis in Lahore on Jan. 27, 2011. A third Pakistani citizen was also killed “in a hit and run” incident when a US security car sped down the wrong side of the road on its way to aid Davis. Later, the wife of one of the victims also committed suicide.

Then there are the deaths of drone victims that have continued to bedevil US-Pakistan ties ever since the air strikes began in 2004. Pakistanis acknowledge that the drones have killed dozens of dangerous terrorists but complain that they also have killed hundreds of civilians and want the Americans to stop the raids.

The Americans say that the Pakistanis exaggerate civilian deaths. They also say that Pakistani officials privately praise the raids and have never seriously asked them to stop the drones.

Another death that had a major impact on US-Pakistan relations is that of the fromer US special envoy Richard Holbrooke. Although he died on Dec. 13, 2010, his successor Marc Grossman took charge of the office on Feb. 22, 2011. So it was only in 2011 that those who closely watch US diplomacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan were able to observe the difference between the two diplomats.

Mr Holbrooke was tall and heavy and had a high-pitched voice. As an envoy of the world’s only superpower, he was unusually powerful and he knew that. Mr Holbrooke also knew how to use his powers. He was not media shy and knew how to use briefings and news conferences to promote his views.

Mr Grossman is slim, quiet and media shy. Unlike, Mr Holbrooke, Mr Grossman maintains a low-profile.

Watching power players up-close is a sobering experience. They look menacingly powerful from a distance. But a closer look gives a different picture. They too have fears and vulnerabilities. Their strongest fear, which ordinary people do not have to suffer, is that of losing their powers.

A more sobering experience, however, is to see them exit the stage. They appear weak, fearful and ordinary, perhaps more than others. But Mr Holbrooke escaped this fate. Known for his ability to produce last minute surprises, he died as he lived.

On an overcast winter morning, Mr Holbrooke went to a State Department meeting. Walked out after complaining of chest pains for what many thought would be a routine check-up. And died. This saved him from suffering the ordinariness that all powerful people have to suffer once their powers are taken away.

“You’ve got to end this war in Afghanistan,” were his last words. But Afghanistan is still simmering, forcing President Barack Obama to assure his nation that he would end this war too, as he ended the war in Iraq.

“We ended one war and began to wind down another,” he told his nation in a message he recorded on Dec. 31, 2011, more than a year after Mr Holbrooke’s death.

Another person who left Washington in 2011— although very much alive and more in the news than he was as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US — is Husain Haqqani.

Mr Haqqani — may he have a long and successful life — was perhaps the most controversial Pakistani ambassador in Washington. Those who liked him — and this included some powerful US officials and lawmakers — believed that he was the best ever Pakistani envoy in the US. Those who disliked him — and they were mostly Pakistani-Americans but also included some US officials — never tired of criticising him.

People often joked that although Mr Haqqani was a good ambassador, it’s not clear whether he was the US ambassador to Pakistan or the Pakistani ambassador to the US.

*And what Mr Haqqani used to say in public gatherings — such as comparing Pakistan to a call girl which takes money but refuses to oblige — also contributed to his unpopularity. But this never worried Mr Haqqani who often said that he knew more US lawmakers than the entire Pakistani-American community does.

And when he was leaving, he too was upset. He was angry. He shouted and tried to charm too, to hide his fears. But he looked weak and vulnerable. And he looked ordinary, a comment he would probably dislike the most.


*In response to Anwar Iqbal's comment, former Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani stated the following:

“Anwar Iqbal erroneously attributed a quote from a US Congressman to me. It is inconceivable that I would say something derogatory about my own country.

The Congressman, a critic of US aid to Pakistan, has made the point repeatedly that he finds Pakistan's attitude on aid, to put it politely, unsavoury.

I may have cited the Congressman's unpleasant remark to explain the difficult task I faced in the US Congress as ambassador. Attributing the words to me is the kind of mistake that makes some people question the integrity and loyalty of their representatives.

As ambassador to the United States I served Pakistan diligently in a hostile environment- a fact recognised widely by the US media.

I wish that the Pakistani media had helped me in conveying the toughening American attitudes to the Pakistani people instead of misrepresenting my mention of negative US views as mine.”


The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.