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In US, analysts fear for Haqqani's safety

January 15, 2012

Husain Haqqani knew America better than many educated Americans. He spoke lucid English and generously quoted American journals in his talks. —File photo by AP
Husain Haqqani knew America better than many educated Americans. He spoke lucid English and generously quoted American journals in his talks. —File photo by AP

When the ‘memogate’ scandal story first broke, the now infamous memo was dismissed by the US media as an unimportant piece of paper – a reaction similar to that of the former US Chairman of Joints Chief of Staff Mike Mullen. The turn of the year, however, has brought a change in the hawkish US media’s take on the scandal. The ‘unimportant piece of paper’ has triggered heated discussions which are punctuated with fear of derailment of Pakistan’s scrawny democracy and safety of the ‘pro-US’ former ambassador Husain Haqqani.

On January 7, a group of sixteen leading US scholars, whose work focuses on South Asia, collectively signed a letter which was addressed to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to “express our deep concern over the safety and well-being of former Pakistani Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani.” The signatories urged the US government to “continue to weigh-in with key Pakistani leaders, make appropriate public statements to ensure that Husain Haqqani is not physically harmed, and that due process of law is followed.”

The expression of sympathy with the former envoy comes in the wake of a similar joint statement issued earlier by influential senators John McCain (Arizona), Mark Steven Kirk (Illinois) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Connecticut). Although the US government had initially avoided commenting on the memogate, Victoria Nuland, the State Department Spokeswoman, subsequently demanded a “fair and transparent” process for the journalist-turned-diplomat.

Prior to his appointment as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Haqqani – who taught international relations at the Boston University – was considered as one of the most well-connected Pakistanis in the US media, academia and government. Despite living in conditions that he described to the New York Times as “essentially like a house arrest,” Haqqani enjoyed admiration and support among articulate professionals in the US capital.

“Finding Husain guilty of treason is like finding democracy guilty of treason,” Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, told An author and editor of 13 books and more than 350 articles, Krepon said he was concerned for Haqqani’s safety as he viewed politics in Pakistan as a “blood sport” where it can be insufficient to castrate someone who holds a threatening political view.

“Worse penalties,” he remembered, “have been imposed.”

Meanwhile, Georgetown University assistant professor Christine Fair said being appointed Pakistan’s ambassador to the US was the ‘worst job in the world.’

Fair, who has known Haqqani as a professional colleague for 10 years, recalled the latter’s dilemma on how he was seen as either a diplomat who was making excuses for a perfidious ally in DC, or in Pakistan as someone who was selling his country’s sovereignty to the Americans.

On his part, Haqqani impressed – if not fully convinced – Americans with his diplomacy during one of lowest times in the history of Pak-US relations following the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011, which publicly questioned Pakistan’s commitment to the war on terror and demanded an explanation for its alleged complicity in harbouring the world’s most dreaded terrorist.

Haqqani knew America better than many educated Americans. He spoke lucid English and generously quoted American journals in his talks. Some say he admired America more than Americans themselves.

“If Husain was not Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington during this period, the bilateral relationship would have simply melted down in the aftermath of the Raymond Davis affair,” said Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the DC-headquartered foreign policy think-tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Tellis, who was intimately involved in negotiating America’s civil nuclear agreement with India, said some Pakistani ambassadors had done a remarkable job in the past defending “special interests” in Pakistan — especially the Army but Haqqani ranked among the few “who stood so clearly and fearlessly for the liberal Pakistan.”

Fair, who also signed the letter to Secretary Clinton, insisted that the signatories’ engagement is not all about Haqqani, “It is about the survival of Pakistan’s fragile democracy under the grinding assault of a jingoistic press, an overbearing military and an over-reaching Supreme Court.”

She questioned the process under which Haqqani became the focus of the memogate scandal. Referring to US businessman Mansoor Ijaz’s disclosure about the ISI chief General Shuja Pasha’s meeting in the Gulf to seek permission to sack President Asif Ali Zardari, Fair insisted that Haqqani’s actions, even if proven to be true, do not amount to treason under article VI of Pakistan’s constitution. However, Pasha’s efforts could qualify as treason because the ISI Director General does not have any authority to seek the removal of the president.

Besides worrying for his safety, Haqqani’s friends in DC are also dissatisfied with the legal representation offered to the former diplomat.

Having once jointly authored a paper with Haqqani, Tellis of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said he fears for the troubled ambassador under the “highly charged atmosphere” in Pakistan, and because “he is without legal representation at a time when he is embroiled in a Kafkaesque tragedy that entails a denial of all due process.”

Tellis suggested that the US government demand for Haqqani the permission to travel freely because he had voluntarily returned to Pakistan. “The current judicial enquiry, which is little but a political farce with no constitutional standing, should end.”

While American scholars continue to passionately seek a fair trial for Haqqani, no such activism has been seen initiated on behalf of Pakistani-American scholars and journalists.

Explaining the reason for absolute indifference on the part of the US-based Pakistani intellectuals toward this issue, one observer, who requested anonymity, cited Haqqani’s contempt for fellow Pakistani journalists and writers as the main cause of lack of support for him.

“Husain cultivated extensive relationships among Americans but he deliberately distanced himself from Pakistani scholars. He wasted no time and opportunity ridiculing and questioning the credentials and professionalism of Pakistani media persons. He earned as many opponents in Pakistani media as he made friends among Americans,” said the observer.

Insiders said Pakistani television anchorpersons were an anathema to Haqqani and he would publicly mention how “doctors have become journalists in Pakistan,” alluding to a popular talk-show host. As the ambassador, some journalists complain, Haqqani tried, without much success, to influence the editorial policy of certain media outlets, including the Urdu service of the Voice of America.

Support for Haqqani from US senators, the State Department and scholars may also backfire in Pakistan, a country with extremely charged anti-American sentiments. The right-media and Haqqani’s opponents will probably manipulate such expression of solidarity as a confirmation of his being an “American agent”.

Haqqani’s intellectual friends said they were mindful of this concern while drafting their letter to Secretary Clinton.

“There was certainly the risk that Haqqani's enemies will use the letter to argue that he is too close to the Americans,” admitted another signatory of the letter, Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC.

“We felt the potential benefits of raising greater awareness on Haqqani’s case outweighed the potential downsides of showing support for him. Remaining silent and cautious on his treatment no longer seemed like the appropriate response to developments inside Pakistan.”

Curtis, who met Haqqani when she was an American diplomat serving in Pakistan in the mid-1990s while the latter was Information Minister in the second Bhutto administration, said the US government should continue to monitor Haqqani’s case as it does other human rights-related cases throughout the world.

“In a country like Pakistan, where those who speak out in favor of fundamental concepts of democracy, like tolerance and pluralism, are increasingly under threat from religious extremists, it becomes even more important for the US to stand up for democratic ideals.”

Whatever attention the memogate scandal has received in DC is mainly because of Ambassador Haqqani’s alleged involvement and his current plight. This episode does not only potentially debunk the civil-military strife in Pakistan but also questions the limits of American influence into Pakistan’s ‘internal matters.’

The author is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC.