Adroit Envoy States Case for Pakistan

New York Times, May 9, 2009


WASHINGTON — On May 4, 1999, Husain Haqqani was yanked off a Pakistani street and bundled into a car, a blanket thrown over his head. He managed to keep his cellphone hidden in his pocket, and surreptitiously dialed a friend’s number to let her know he was in trouble.

That may have saved his skin, said Mr. Haqqani, now Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States. The news of his detention made it harder for his captors, Pakistani intelligence agents, to hurt him, Mr. Haqqani said, though he was roughed up and kept in jail for two months until a court ordered his release.

As the Obama administration struggles with another darkening crisis in Pakistan, Mr. Haqqani has become an influential figure in Washington — a silver-tongued interpreter in public of his country’s bewildering politics, but also a relentless, unyielding defender of Pakistan’s image and reputation.

The crisis has given Mr. Haqqani, 52, access to the highest levels of the Obama administration and Congress, the latest twist in a lifetime spent navigating Pakistan’s treacherous political shoals.

He speaks several times a week with Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who calls him “one of the most skilled ambassadors I have ever seen.” He figures he has met with 90 members of Congress. And he is a fixture on CNN, the op-ed pages of newspapers and at research groups around Washington.

But critics say Mr. Haqqani is a quick-change artist who cozies up to whoever is in power. Before he left Pakistan in 2002, after falling out with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, he had worked for both his country’s leading political figures — Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto — switching from one to the other with dispatch, depending on whose fortunes were rising.

As a journalist, Mr. Haqqani cultivated sources in Mr. Musharraf’s circle. But he soon became an outspoken critic of the Musharraf government, making his life in Pakistan difficult. He aligned himself solidly with Ms. Bhutto — and after she was assassinated in 2007, with her husband, Ali Asif Zardari, now the president.

Since moving to the United States, Mr. Haqqani has developed an affinity for American culture. He taught international relations at Boston University from 2004 to 2008, and he roots for the Red Sox. The American experience has only added to suspicions about him back in Pakistan.

“They see him more as a U.S. envoy than a Pakistani envoy,” said Mowahid Hussain Shah, a Pakistani lawyer. “They see him as someone who is competent and bright, but slick.”

Mr. Haqqani readily admits shifting his allegiances over the years. But he denies being an opportunist, saying he underwent a personal journey from being an Islamic activist in his youth to a conservative supporter of Mr. Sharif to an acolyte of the populism of the Bhutto clan.

“Is changing one’s opinion opportunism?” he said. “Opportunism would be if I got commercial or financial gain from changing my opinion, and that charge has never been made of me.”

Mr. Haqqani speaks in lucid, well-rounded sentences that suggest his background as a journalist and commentator. He is catnip for American journalists, offering a mix of high-minded analysis and street-corner gossip. (The New York Times put him on a retainer for several months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when he was working as a journalist, to help its correspondents better understand Pakistan.) But he can also be prickly and peremptory, using his new post to hector reporters, editors and policymakers over perceived slights or misinterpretations.

His book “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military” offered a nuanced analysis of how the armed forces and Islamist groups have used one another in an effort to build influence in the country.

Mr. Haqqani relishes mixing journalism with politics, which got him into trouble in 1999, when he was the spokesman for the opposition to Mr. Sharif, then prime minister. After his abduction, he faced corruption charges, which were later dropped.

His ability to bounce back from adversity may be tested yet again. Mr. Haqqani’s star is now hitched to Mr. Zardari, a billionaire who has himself been dogged by suspicions of corruption and has seen his popularity plummet as Pakistan falls deeper into distress.

Mr. Haqqani does his best to polish his boss’s image.

Mr. Holbrooke, himself no slouch in the media-mastery department, said, “Some ambassadors’ influence is derived logically from the country they represent; Husain Haqqani’s influence is derived from his absolute mastery of the American media.”

Mr. Haqqani’s ties to the Bhutto family run deep. On the day Ms. Bhutto was killed, Mr. Haqqani recalls taping interviews with television stations for 12 hours. At times, he broke down in tears on camera.

Mr. Haqqani’s wife, Farahnaz Ispahani, is a member of the Pakistani Parliament and a spokeswoman for Mr. Zardari.

This week, Mr. Haqqani said he arranged an early morning visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Holbrooke to Mr. Zardari at the Willard hotel. The reason was partly personal: Mrs. Clinton said hello to Ms. Bhutto’s 20-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whom she had last seen a decade earlier.

Mr. Haqqani views himself as a mediator between old friends with a lot of baggage in their relationship.

“I see my role as helping Americans understand that Pakistan is undergoing a transformation,” he said. “Then I have to persuade Americans to help Pakistan with that transformation.”

The solution to Pakistan’s instability, Mr. Haqqani said, is redoubled American support for its democratically elected government. But Mr. Zardari faced deep skepticism when he tried to reassure lawmakers that Pakistan had the political will and military resources to repel a Taliban incursion that has pushed to within an hour’s drive of the capital, Islamabad.

Mr. Haqqani’s belief in Pakistani democracy is hard won and heartfelt, said Teresita C. Schaffer, a former American diplomat who befriended Mr. Haqqani when they both served as ambassadors to Sri Lanka. But as an ambassador, she said, his views were bound to be rosy.

“The part that he has slid over, particularly in his current job, is whether the government is competent enough to make the democratic enterprise work,” Ms. Schaffer said.