CONTRIBUTORS

Meet Husain Haqqani, hardest working man in D.C.

Posted July 31, 2011, at 7:29 p.m.

Life for many members of Washington’s diplomatic corps is, one imagines, pretty much a picnic. For example, the ambassador from Barbados generally faces no career-threatening crises. Nor does the ambassador from Luxembourg.

Others have trickier assignments. The ambassador with the hardest job in Washington is undoubtedly Pakistan’s Husain Haqqani, a skilled and wily diplomat who faces the near-impossible task of representing a country that Washington considers at once a crucial ally and a treacherous adversary.

A one-time Islamist turned pro-democracy Americaphile, Haqqani is seen by many in his own country as an American toady. But some of his critics, including many of Pakistan’s generals, benefit materially from Haqqani’s work as his country’s most effective interpreter and apologist.

Haqqani’s entire tenure as ambassador has been an exercise in crisis management. But the crisis has become truly perilous since a U.S. Navy SEAL team found Osama bin Laden living quietly in a city not far from Pakistan’s capital and killed him May 2.

Pakistan saw the raid as a gross violation of its sovereignty; the U.S. saw bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan as, at the very least, proof of Pakistan’s unwillingness to fight terrorism. Since the raid, the countries have behaved like an about-to-be-divorced couple: The Pakistanis have been rolling up CIA networks, and the U.S. has suspended $800 million in military aid.

I visited Haqqani recently at his embassy, which is across the street from the Israelis (of all people), to talk about the diverse impossibilities of his assignment. He didn’t completely disagree with me when I suggested that he has the worst job in the city.

“You can call it the worst, or the best,” he said. “I see it as the single most challenging.”

Haqqani faces a double-layered problem. Not only is his country viewed by many on Capitol Hill as an enemy state, but also Pakistanis at home have turned ferociously anti-American. So Haqqani spends as much time explaining America to Pakistan as he does explaining Pakistan to America.

He recently visited his country’s National Defense University and asked a group of officers, “What is the principal national security threat to Pakistan?” A plurality named not India, or al-Qaida, but the U.S.

Haqqani blames Pakistan’s democratic nature (he has taken to speaking as if the Pakistani military doesn’t have veto power over decisions made by the civilian government) for part of the country’s anti-U.S. turn.

“Because we are a democracy now, the political leadership, while maintaining good relations with the United States, does not want to risk too much politically in terms of speaking out on behalf of this relationship. So I end up having to do the speaking out for this bilateral relationship.” He paused, then said, “Which causes issues for me.”

He also blames the policies of the U.S. “You can’t have a relationship with a country just by making demands on it. Pakistanis ask why you don’t understand our domestic politics. Americans have to take into account that the primary emotion on the Pakistani side is abandonment and a feeling that America doesn’t respect us. Of course, I turn around and say that these are reasonable assertions, but with all due respect we have to understand their domestic compulsions as well.”

He went on, “If the primary emotion on our side is abandonment, the primary emotion on the American side is deception, that the Pakistanis deceived us.”

Whatever their reasons, it’s delusional for Pakistanis to think of the U.S. as an enemy. Although the U.S. has sometimes been a feckless partner, it is no more an enemy of Pakistan than it is of India. The U.S. spends billions of dollars on civilian and military aid to Pakistan (much of it negotiated by Haqqani), and Washington would very much like to trust in Pakistan’s friendship.

The American street, however, is deeply frustrated. One doesn’t have to believe that top Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden’s Abbotabad hideaway — I don’t — to view Pakistan’s support for the militants killing Americans in Afghanistan as the action of a hostile state.

And so Haqqani spends most of his time patching the relationship, especially on Capitol Hill.

His work was made particularly difficult last week, when accusations surfaced that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, was secretly funneling money to U.S. political candidates to sway them to Pakistan’s side. “Out of 11 congressional offices I visited, five put the newspaper with that story in front of me. I’m trying to come and talk about the big picture issues,” he said.

It is because the Obama administration, and Congress, like Haqqani more than they like other Pakistani officials that he can be as effective as he is.

There’s only so much a single ambassador can do. What’s most noticeable today in the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan is the fatigue caused by the comprehensive dysfunctions between them. Haqqani sees this fatigue wherever he goes.

“I try to explain these countries to each other. Sometimes I meet people who say, ‘Oh, God, here is the man who has an explanation for everything.”’

Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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