Cautious Optimism for Pakistan: An Interview with Husain Haqqani

 /  Dec. 4, 2015, 10:33 a.m.


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Ambassador Husain Haqqani is the Director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and a Fall Fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. He previously served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011. The Gate’s Kevin Shi and Hamza Shad sat down with Ambassador Haqqani to discuss his career, Pakistan-US relations, and challenges facing Pakistan.

The Gate: What motivated you to enter politics, and how has your career developed to where you are now?

Ambassador Husain Haqqani: I got interested in politics as a very young kid, actually. It was when Pakistan’s military dictator Field Marshal Ayub Khan held elections in which he was being opposed by the sister of Pakistan’s founder, Ms. Fatima Jinnah. I was nine years old, and my father was supporting Ms. Jinnah, as were many people in my hometown of Karachi. So that’s when I volunteered because I was assisting my father in the election, and that’s what got me interested. And as I grew older and learned more, I realized that politics is a way of basically: (a) changing things, and (b) being able to make a better world.

Gate: During your political career, you worked in Pakistan’s government in several capacities and ultimately served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011. Tell us more about your tenure as ambassador and what you think of that experience.

Haqqani: Well, I think I served Pakistan well at a very difficult time. When I became ambassador, Pakistan’s stock in Washington was relatively low. General Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship had become an American military ally again, this time ostensibly to combat terrorism. But by 2007, it had become obvious that his government was playing a double game of supporting some jihadi terrorists that were being used to fight in Afghanistan and against India, while weeding out some others. So, Americans were now very suspicious of Pakistan and its double game. The elected government asked me to serve, and I came in with a clear mandate from the governmentthe civilian governmentto reassure the United States that Pakistan will fight terrorism, not because we want to do it for America and to get American aid, but because we want to do it for the sake of Pakistan. I was always desirous of strengthening Pakistan’s democracy, so it was an opportunity to serve.

It was a difficult time in many ways because Pakistan’s military, although no longer directly controlling the government after Musharraf, still exerted a lot of indirect influence and remained the power behind the scenes. The military did not like me, partly because I had written a book exposing its links with Islamists and making the argument that it was too large for the size of Pakistan. I worked very amicably with the military leaders while serving as ambassador, but I knew deep down that they did not agree with my personal worldview and had reservations about me.

On the other hand, I had good access in WashingtonI was able to talk to a lot of people who otherwise would not have had time for the Pakistani ambassador or the Pakistani embassy. This was a legacy of my having been in Washington for a long time as an academic and while serving at a think tank. I was able to negotiate greater American support for Pakistan’s civilian government. The United States offered Pakistan the largest ever civilian aid package. In the past, more aid has been given to the military than for civilian purposes, but this time the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill, passed by Congress in 2009 as the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, assured Pakistan of $1.5 billion every year for five years, for a total of $7.5 billion for healthcare, education, infrastructure development, and disaster managementthings that had been ignored under military rule in the past. The military did not like the language of the bill, which some of the military sympathizers argued was virtually borrowed from my book, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. I didn’t know that, and I didn’t think that was the case, but I do support the argument that the United States needs to support Pakistan’s civil society more than it needs to support Pakistan’s military. Anyway, I think that bill was a positive thing for Pakistanit proved to be very useful when Pakistan was hit by historic floods in 2010. That money came in handy in flood relief because millions of people were uprooted, and Pakistan simply didn’t have the resources to care for them. The American assistance came in handy. I was also able to persuade the US militarythe Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullento try and find helicopters for flood relief because people were stranded in different places, and the American helicopters really were very useful.

At the political level, I was able to make the case that the civilian leaders of Pakistan should not be marginalized, that even though American officials tended to talk to the Pakistani military directly, they should not completely marginalize the civilians. Things changed considerably after Bin Laden’s discovery in Pakistan as the Pakistani military mounted greater pressure on the civilian government within Pakistan and eventually was able to force me to resign. But I think as a whole, the three and a half years I served as ambassador were a good time for me, for the position that I served, and for the government that I represented. It was also a good time for US-Pakistan relations in many ways.

Gate: On that note, can you talk a little bit about being the formal head diplomat of Pakistan in the United States, but being just one arm of Pakistani diplomacy in the USthe civilian arm?

Haqqani: As ambassador, I discovered that I was not conducting bilateral diplomacy between Pakistan and the United States, but was part of a “triangular” diplomacy involving Pakistan’s elected civilian government, Pakistan’s military, and the US. The United States has systems in place whereby the CIA and the military do not act on their ownthey respond to civilian oversight. In Pakistan, the Pakistani intelligence service and military are by and large independent and far more powerful. There was a lot of push-and-pull in Pakistan at that time as the military tried to clip the civilian government’s wings in conducting foreign policy. The government that I served wanted better relations with India, a more robust posture against terrorism, and closer ties with the United States. The military wanted close ties with the United States only to the extent of wanting aid and military equipment. They certainly did not want to give up their dream of having Afghanistan as part of Pakistan’s sphere of influence, and they were very reluctant to make moves in normalizing relations with India that did not take care of their interests as an institution. So in the beginning, all branches of the American government preferred to go through me and the civilian government, but once they realized that the civilian government was relatively weak and could not always keep its promisesbecause the military did not always fulfill the demands or expectations of civilian leadersthey also started directly negotiating a number of things with the intelligence leadership and military leadership.

While I was ambassador, I made it a point to at least be in the know. I told my American counterparts that if you want to talk to the military separately, I can’t stop you, but you need to take me into confidence as to what you are talking with them about, so that the civilian leaders in Pakistan at least know what the military and Americans are committing to one another. Because after all, it is not an institution making a commitment, it’s a country making a commitment. And that was not always easy.

Gate: Speaking of the relationship between Pakistan and the United States, the US has been everywhere in terms of how it views Pakistan, with officials calling it both the “most allied ally” and an “international migraine” at different points in history. What is the significance of each country for the other, and why has it been, at times, such a difficult relationship to manage?

Haqqani: Pakistan’s circumstances of birth were such that Pakistan lacked the historical and political identity that its much larger neighbor India had. Pakistanis always felt insecure about India. From inception, they thought that India wanted to finish off Pakistan. Pakistan got 33% of British India’s army but only 17% of its revenue services. All of these factors made Pakistan seek an international ally that would, on the one hand, make Pakistan feel secure, and on the other hand, make up for Pakistan’s lack of economic depth and resources for maintaining a large military. Most countries raise a military to match the threat that they face. In the case of Pakistan, it started out with a military and then raised the threat to match the size of that military.

The United States was looking for allies against communism. Pakistan offered itself as an ally, and the Americans gratefully accepted that after an initial few years of reluctance. And then neither side looked back. But the relationship was always based on false pretenses. The Pakistanis were pretending to be concerned about America’s primary concerns. Yes, Pakistan did not want communism to succeed, but there was no immediate threat or danger to Pakistan of communism. So Pakistan's military buildup was not against communists, it was against India. The Americans, on the other hand, were bluffing themselves that if only they gave Pakistan more aid and assistance, they would be able to bring Pakistan round to helping them. In between, Pakistan did help America in intelligence gathering, running U-2 flights out of Peshawar, and allowing them to spy on China from East Pakistan, but that was not what the Americans originally expected. Similarly, Americans could not come to Pakistan’s assistance the way Pakistanis wanted in the wars Pakistan initiated in 1965 and 1971. So, the fundamental lack of congruence of interests is what has made this relationship go through its various ups and downs. Americans often find it convenient to have Pakistan as an ally because they can get several specific transactional advantages, just like they got during the 1960s in the form of the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, in the ‘70s through using Pakistan as a bridge to China, in the ‘80s as a staging ground for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and more recently, again as a partner in gathering intelligence and occasionally detaining, arresting, and handing over al-Qaeda suspects.

But that said, Pakistan’s priority is conflict with India. America's priorities are global. The question is, can Pakistan continue to pursue policies that do not support America’s global objectives while performing certain specific favors for the Americans and continuing to be one of the recipients of American assistance? I think that that is unsustainable over the long term. Pakistan has already received $40 billion in civil and military assistance since 1950. Compare that to South Korea or Taiwan where far less assistance helped catalyze major economic success. Pakistan has ended up only with greater dependency, less feeling of security, and far too many internal problems. The way I foresee the US-Pakistan relationship is that it will continue to be a transactional relationship in which the Americans will give Pakistan due favors in return for Pakistan’s favors for the United States. But the divergence of interests between the two countries will also continue to expand.

Gate: Do you see a situation where the civilian leaders can create a government or a system of governance that allows the enormous aid to benefit human and economic causes as opposed to just military ones?

Haqqani: I would like that to happen, but I do not see that happening right now. In any case, we must remember that aid is fungibleso as long as Pakistan’s decision-making remains primarily in the hands of the military, the civilian purposes for which aid is given will always receive only secondary attention. Pakistan has the world’s sixth largest army, but it is 44th in size of economy. By maintaining an army that is disproportionately larger than the size of the economy, Pakistan simply has not reached the point where it can absorb assistance in a way in which it can actually transform itself as an economic powerhouse. Ideally, Pakistan should use the resources that it receives in international aid to educate its population, create a skilled workforce, improve its agriculture, enhance its industrial productivity, raise its living standards, and become a crossroads of regional trade, instead of being the crossroads of regional conflict.

Gate: Looking at Pakistan’s foreign policy, India is clearly the most important country of consideration, as you mentioned. Although these two countries are known for their contentious rivalry, what do you think their respective goals should be for a more open and productive bilateral relationship?

Haqqani: The problem in India-Pakistan relationships has been the notion that they need to solve their conflicts before they can have normal relations. Historic experience shows that most countries have done much better when they have normalized relations as a means of solving disputes. Pakistan and India have an unresolved dispute in Kashmir, and they have some other issues of border demarcation, etc.but those issues should not stop the two countries from trade, from normal travel between their peoples, and from increased educational exchange. If that started happening, then even the resolution of the disputes of Kashmir and Sir Creek would be easier. The reason why we have not reached that point is because there are ideologues in India who insist that Pakistan is India’s enemy and therefore, there should be no concession made, ever, to Pakistan. In Pakistan’s case, the Pakistani military, as well as most political forces in Pakistan, believe that India is a permanent and eternal enemy of Pakistan. Pakistan is seen by them as an ideological state, and what is the core of that ideology? The core of that ideology is separateness from India. There is a strong religious component to it. There is a desire to somehow be more closely attached to the Middle East than South Asia even though Pakistan is historically and culturally deeply connected to India. In an environment like that, it is just not possible to talk rationally of normal relations.

Gate: Do you think the relationship will change as India becomes a more ambitious power on the global stage?

Haqqani: I think that at the moment, Pakistan’s military is worried about India’s rise rather than looking upon it as an opportunity. Pakistan could actually benefit from India’s economic growth by trading more with India, but that is not how most Pakistanis see India. They see their enemy as growing and becoming more powerful. The fact still remains that Pakistan cannot sustain competition with India endlessly. At the time of partition, Pakistan had about 19% of the population and 17% of the resources, but 33% of the military. Over time, the Pakistani military’s gap with the Indian military has increased, and as India’s economic prowess increases, India’s ability to buy better military equipment globally will also increase. At some point, Pakistan has to think in its own interests to stop the competition, and instead of a meaningless competition with a neighbor, Pakistan should think about having normal, friendly relations with a neighbor with whom it will always be a neighbor.

Gate: 2013 marked the first time a civilian government in Pakistan completed a term and handed power over to another civilian government. Do you think this is a positive sign for the development of civil society in Pakistan, or is military dominance just as likely as any other time, given the popularity of the military and General Raheel Sharif?

Haqqani: It is a positive development that Pakistan had a transfer of power between civilians without direct intervention of the military. That said, the era of Pakistan’s military’s dominance over Pakistan, politically and psychologically, is not over. The civilians will need a lot more time to go from just having positions of power to actually wielding authority. Policy-making must come into the hands of the federal cabinet and parliament, rather than be undertaken in meetings between the prime minister and the army chief. As far as the popularity of the army chief is concerned, all nations love their soldiers, and Pakistan is no exception. But nowhere in the world are portraits of the army chief painted on the backs of trucks. This is a reflection of Pakistan being conceptualized as a warrior state, and the 21st century just does not favor warrior states.

Gate: Overall, would you describe yourself as an optimist for the Pakistani state and civil society?

Haqqani: I am a very cautious optimist who wants to continue to struggle for a stronger Pakistani civil society and for complete control of the civilians over the military. Pakistani civil society is not dead. In some areas, it is very robust. The real issue isshould Pakistan remain a warrior state where the military prevails, whether through popularity or through manipulation or even direct control, or should major decisions of war, peace, and national policy be made by those who are elected to make those decisions? I want the latter and am willing to struggle for it.


Hamza Shad and Kevin Shi


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