Former ambassador’s plight reflects decline of U.S.-Pakistan ties

The scary decline of relations between the United States and Pakistan – the world’s most dangerous nuclear-armed country – is illustrated by the perilous plight of one man.

Husain Haqqani was, until recently, the savvy and energetic Pakistani ambassador to Washington, dubbed by Bloomberg “the hardest working man in DC.” His job was thankless: trying to maintain ties between two countries that deeply distrust each other.

Pakistan’s military disliked Haqqani because of his long-standing opposition to its ties with Islamist groups. (He wrote the best book on the subject.) He was also regarded as too “pro-American.” But the generals apparently recognized that only someone like Haqqani could ease tensions with Washington and keep the U.S. aid flowing.

So they let him keep working to prevent U.S.-Pakistani ties from breaking. Until now.

Haqqani has resigned and returned home. He’s accused by the military and the media – no formal charges – of drafting an unsigned memo asking Washington in May to help block a military coup in Pakistan. In return, Pakistan’s civilian government supposedly would have cracked down on its military and ISI intelligence agency.

Haqqani is forbidden to leave the country, and could be charged with treason. But the “Memogate” affair is so bizarre, one has to ask whether it’s merely a pretext for the Pakistani military to unseat the civilian government and rupture ties with the United States.

The more details that emerge about this alleged scandal, the more fishy it looks. A Pakistani American businessman named Mansoor Ijaz passed the memo to President Obama’s former national security adviser, Jim Jones, in May 2011; Jones gave it to Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Ijaz ignited the firestorm by writing about the memo in the Financial Times in October. He says he was following Haqqani’s instructions to convey a message from Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari; he claims he has text messages that back up his story. But the tale is full of holes.

Haqqani denies he had anything to do with the memo. Jones denies Ijaz ever mentioned Haqqani. And Mullen says he paid the unsigned document no attention. But even putting all that aside, the story makes no sense.

For one thing, Zardari had tried once before and failed miserably to gain control of the ISI; neither he nor Haqqani would have been likely to court another failure. Moreover, the memo was passed just after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which left the Pakistani military weakened and unlikely to make a coup.

Most telling, the well-connected Haqqani had no need to use an unreliable cutout to deliver messages. Which brings us to the central weakness of the story: the credibility of Mansoor Ijaz.

Ijaz, who once managed an investment firm, had cultivated well-placed political friends in both parties. He seems like a clone of Walter Mitty, the Thurber character who had heroic daydreams and tried to convince others they were true.

Ijaz claims that he got Sudan in the mid-1990s to offer the Clinton administration intelligence on al-Qaeda, and that Sudan offered to arrest bin Laden. The 9/11 Commission found no “credible evidence” of any such Sudanese offer.

Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, has detailed a long list of sensational claims by Ijaz to Fox News, CNN, and British newspapers that were baseless. Example: Ijaz told Fox in 2003 that “unimpeachable eyewitness sources” placed bin Laden in Iran; later he admitted this was in error.

This month Ijaz claimed, in a Newsweek interview, that the United States told Haqqani and Zardari in advance about the raid on bin Laden. Given the intense secrecy in which this raid was held, such a claim is ludicrous. It undercuts everything else Ijaz has said.

Yet Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders are fanning the Memogate furor, which further inflames anti-Americanism in their country. They seem unaware that their hot pursuit of Haqqani (and Zardari) is likely to boomerang against their own interests, and their country’s interests as well.

Pakistan needs to maintain its ties with the United States, no matter how fragile. If they break, Pakistan’s generals lose military aid that won’t be replaced by China. Without strategic cooperation between the two countries, neighboring Afghanistan will collapse into chaos after U.S. troops leave, a chaos that will blow back into Pakistan.

Husain Haqqani was no traitor; he understood the need to prevent a U.S. rupture with Pakistan. His forced resignation could bring that rupture closer. By blindly pursuing Memogate, Pakistan’s military leaders are boxing themselves into a situation that is as dangerous for their country as it is for America. Is that what the generals really want?

The author, Trudy Rubin, is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. This article originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee on December 23, 2011. Click here to access the original article.