Pakistan’s man in Washington walks a delicate line

Husain Haqqani, who has lived in the U.S. since 2002, represents a country whose citizens are wary of the United States, which in turn has deep doubts about Pakistani leadership.

By Paul Richter

October 24, 2008

Reporting from Washington — Only a few months ago, he was a foreign policy commentator in Boston known around the world for blasting the government of his native Pakistan and, sometimes, the Bush administration as well.

Today, Husain Haqqani is Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, charged with cultivating and promoting the turbulent U.S.-Pakistani relationship.

It may be the toughest diplomatic job in Washington.

The 52-year-old Haqqani represents the new government of a country whose citizens are wary of the United States. At the same time, the Bush administration harbors deep doubts about Pakistani leadership.

In recent weeks, Haqqani has met with officials on both sides after U.S. airstrikes that killed Pakistani civilians, media reports of secret U.S. military raids into Pakistan, and gunfire between U.S. and Pakistani troops near the Afghan border. In a recently released Gallup poll, 45% of Pakistanis said they viewed the U.S. forces in Afghanistan as a menace to their country.

“I haven’t had a moment’s rest through this whole period,” says Haqqani, who regularly receives calls from his country’s president and others for consultations at 2 a.m.

His message has been consistent: Pakistan’s fragile new civilian government is committed to democratic reform and to the battle against extremists and that reports of conflict with the Bush administration are overblown.

Haqqani, who has worked at different times as a journalist, diplomat and political advisor, has lived in the United States since 2002 as a think-tank analyst and head of a foreign policy institute at Boston University.

He has cultivated a taste for American things, including the Boston Red Sox and “Larry King Live” (“when it’s not about Lacy Peterson”).

He is married to Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of parliament and spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party. A former CNN producer, she is the granddaughter of Pakistan’s first ambassador to the United States, M.A.H. Ispahani.

Haqqani regularly draws on his deep U.S. ties, but acknowledges questions back home. “Some people in Pakistan do ask snidely, ‘Is he Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, or the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan?’ ” he says.

It’s a tough job, but Haqqani has supporters in Washington. “If anybody can carry it off, it’s him,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Haqqani has worked for Pakistani politicians of varying stripes, including Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Ghulam Mustaf Jatoi, as well as Zardari, Bhutto’s widower.

That history has stirred accusations in some quarters that his motive is ambition rather than conviction. He’s been compared to David Gergen, political advisor to Presidents Reagan and Clinton, and, somewhat less flatteringly, to Dick Morris, the former Clinton political advisor known for tough campaign tactics.

Haqqani shrugs off criticisms. He came to his job with his own experience in political Islam. Raised in a conservative religious family from a poorer part of Karachi, he “alternated between being attracted to and repulsed by political Islam,” he wrote in a 1999 op-ed.

As president of the student union at the University of Karachi in 1979, he enjoyed spending time in the U.S. Consulate’s air-conditioned library reading about foreign relations and the United States. When Islamists and other radical students urged him to lead an attack on the facility, he resisted.

Today, he’s proud of all that he has absorbed about the United States. He boasts that he once beat officials at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad at American history questions in a game of Trivial Pursuit.

When the American ambassador asked at the time how he had managed it, Haqqani answered: “I learned it sitting in your library.”

When Haqqani assumed his latest post in June, the Bush administration’s longtime ally, Pervez Musharraf, was still in the presidency. The White House viewed Musharraf as their best bet for dealing with the militant threat, but Haqqani argued that the new government would do better.

Still, there remained “this huge credibility gap with the Congress and the administration, at least, in the military and intelligence communities,” said Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank.

As ambassador, Haqqani’s top assignments include helping Pakistani officials understand the United States and communicate with Americans, and guiding them through their U.S. visits.

Other politicians in Pakistan “aren’t able to match his skill in this,” says Arif Rafiq of the New York-based Pakistan policy blog.

For instance, Haqqani is widely assumed to have been responsible for the tenor of a speech late last month by Zardari to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In the speech, the prime minister declared that the struggle against militants was Pakistan’s own fight, not one being waged on behalf of the United States.

The Zardari speech “struck all the right notes,” said Ashley J. Tellis, a former White House foreign policy aide who was a colleague of Haqqani’s at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Zardari address came at a moment when world powers were becoming increasingly convinced that Pakistan was losing its will to confront extremism.

But a U.S. commando raid in South Waziristan on Sept. 3 that killed as many as 20 people had infuriated Pakistanis and was denounced by Zardari and by the nation’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. Haqqani joined in, issuing his own warning to U.S. officials.

“Unilateral action by the American forces does not help the war against terror,” Haqqani said, “because it only enrages public opinion.”