Most ambassadors gain real influence only after years of working Washington’s corridors of power — and often only with the help of expensive lobbying firms. But Husain Haqqani, the ambassador-designate from Pakistan, already knows almost everyone who counts.
“He’s one of the guys,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, who has known Haqqani for more than five years. “I’ll always take a call from him.” He was one of a half-dozen senior members of Congress who saw Haqqani on short notice during a recent two-day trip to Washington.
As spokesman and political confidant of then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Haqqani became a familiar face at Washington think tanks, on American news programs and on Capitol Hill, where he lobbied, after being exiled in 1999, against the government of President Pervez Musharraf. Now that Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party is back in power, Haqqani has become the public face of Pakistan in Washington.
“It’s difficult to be a survivor in the Pakistani political scene, and he’s certainly been a survivor,” said George Percovich, a former colleague of Haqqani’s at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Now he’s on a first-name basis with so many players in Washington that whatever administration comes next won’t matter.”
On Capitol Hill, Haqqani’s schmoozing skills are often compared to Washington’s master politicos. “I sometimes call him Karl Rove — without the wickedness,” a senior congressional staffer said.
“He’s a garrulous fellow who’s passionate about Pakistan, and there’s never a shortage of conversation when he’s around. He loves the engagement and loves to be in the middle of politics and bringing the parties together,” said Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), who has also known Haqqani for several years.
When he’s not working the State Department or the Hill, Haqqani is trying to influence U.S. thinking with opinion pieces in publications — they currently fill most of the 19 pages of his bio. “He’s a man with a golden tongue who writes well and fast,” said Teresita C. Schaffer, a diplomatic colleague of Haqqani’s when the two were their nations’ top envoys to Sri Lanka.
Haqqani will arrive in Washington later this month as the two countries on the front line of combating terrorism begin to redefine their relationship. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration has dealt directly with Musharraf. Now it must work with a fractious coalition government whose agenda is not always in sync with Washington’s.
“The new coalition has to show it has an effective approach to the domestic insurgency that is different from Musharraf and not made in Washington. It is inclined to deal with the problem politically, not militarily,” said Schaffer, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The new government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani favors negotiating with Pakistan’s militant groups, “and that has given Washington a bad case of the jitters,” Schaffer said.
Pakistan is in turn under pressure from Washington to produce results and a fuller accounting of billions in U.S. aid since 2001, particularly given the rare successes in tracking al-Qaeda operating along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. More than $75 million was withheld this year because of poor accounting, U.S. officials say.
Haqqani’s main pitch will be refocusing the approach to battling terrorism. “U.S.-Pakistan relations have been about security. Now it needs to become a strategic partnership,” he said. “Pakistan has always felt insecure, in part due to the circumstances since its birth. Pakistan now needs to develop the kind of relationship the United States has with NATO, that they can rely on each other long term.”
U.S.-Pakistan negotiations should be as much about market share as security, Haqqani argued. “There can be no success in the war on terrorism unless we can offer jobs, education and health services for our own people,” he said. “And that will only happen when Pakistan has markets for its textiles.”
At least initially, he may find a receptive audience. “Five years ago, he was arguing that U.S. policy vesting everything in relations with a military dictatorship was a mistake and we’d be better off promoting political pluralism,” Berman said. “Lo and behold, we’re in that situation now, and I think he can play an important role in widening the level of support for Pakistan and communicating to Pakistanis the issues we consider important.”
To accept the job, Haqqani had to commit to an epic commuter marriage. His wife, former CNN and MSNBC producer Farahnaz Ispahani, won a seat in the new parliament. She is the granddaughter of M.A.H. Ispahani, Pakistan’s first ambassador to Washington. When Ispahani visits, she will be living in the home on S Street bought by her grandfather and donated as Pakistan’s permanent residence.
By Robin Wright for The Washington Post