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Ex-Envoy Says Misunderstanding Runs on Both Sides of U.S.-Pakistan Ties (Interview conducted by Mark Landler)

Husain Haqqani

The meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the White House on Wednesday is the most recent attempt by American and Pakistani leaders to reset a fraught relationship.  Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, has documented that legacy of mistrust in a new book, “Magnificent Delusions” (Public Affairs, Nov. 5). Mr. Haqqani, a former adviser to Mr. Sharif who now teaches at Boston University, was a victim of those toxic ties, forced out in 2011 amid allegations, which he denies, that he sought American help to rein in the Pakistani military.

We caught up with him here recently, and what follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Q. You trace the star-crossed relationship between Pakistan and the United States back to the founding of the Pakistani state in 1947. In what way do the mutual suspicions go back that far?

The mutual misunderstandings start in 1947; the suspicions come later. The misunderstanding was Pakistan’s expectation that the United States would help build it up in its quest for containing Communism. And when the United States built it up, that Pakistan would be able to seek parity with India, which was its primary rival. The Americans had no such intention. The suspicions, in my opinion, are very much contrived as a means of generating public opposition to the United States in Pakistan, and thereby giving the Pakistanis leverage in the relationship.

Q. What is the biggest misconception Pakistanis have about the United States?

The suspicion in Pakistan is that the United States wants to defang Pakistan’s nuclear program, that the United States cannot accept a Muslim country having a strong military, and that America wants Pakistan to be subservient to India, just as it wants the Arabs to be subservient to Israel. It is ironic that a lot of this is based on conspiracy theories that are rampant in Pakistan. Recently, the vice chancellor of Pakistan’s largest university came out with a book that says that the British and American governments are controlled by a high cabal, which manipulates each one of us by putting microchips in our brains.

Q. What is the biggest misconception Americans have about Pakistan?

The biggest misconception the Americans have had is that they can somehow bend Pakistan to their will simply with the leverage of aid. Aid has never given the Americans the leverage they thought they would have. As far as the American public is concerned, it has never really seriously engaged with Pakistan, and the understanding of most Americans about Pakistan is through single-issue prisms: nuclear program one day, terrorism the other. There has never been an effort to understand 180 million people and their aspirations.

Q. Critics of the United States say that Pakistanis feel the United States cultivates Pakistan when it needs it, and abandons it when it no longer needs it. Is that valid?

It is partially valid. Each time, Pakistan also has failed to fulfill promises it made to the United States. However, Pakistanis complain louder than Americans, so therefore, the sequence of who abandoned who is not always fully understood. One of the things I speak of in my book is how Pakistan’s elites almost always misled their people about what they had promised the Americans in private.

Q. The late [special envoy] Richard Holbrooke was among those who tried to broaden the U.S.-Pakistan relationship beyond counterterrorism and military aid. Yet those efforts did not outlive him. Is that a valid model for putting the relationship on a firmer footing?

Richard Holbrooke envisaged a “grand bargain,” in which Pakistan’s insecurities about India were addressed, Pakistan’s ambitions in Afghanistan were dealt with, and Pakistan was assured that America will be there for the long haul. But a “grand bargain” is only possible under very strong leadership in Pakistan and very strong leadership in the United States. Ambassador Holbrooke was not able to convince President Obama to put the full weight of his presidency behind his initiative. On the other hand, President [Asif Ali] Zardari in Pakistan was also handicapped by complex domestic politics.

Q. How did the Obama administration’s expansion of the drone program affect the relationship?

The [Gen. Pervez] Musharraf government had accepted the drone program primarily because they intended to keep it secret. An occasional strike was easy to keep secret. The Obama administration’s escalation of the drones as a means of dealing with terrorist safe havens in Northwest Pakistan complicated the ability of the Pakistani military and intelligence services to keep the program secret. This was a program whose escalation made secrecy impossible, and Pakistan’s leaders were unwilling to have a program that was a little more open. The viable option would have been a joint program, and that was not acceptable to the American side because of their persistent suspicions about Pakistan’s intelligence services being deeply penetrated by terrorist sympathizers.

Q. In your last book, “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military,” you wrote about the ties between Islamist movements and Pakistan’s U.S.-backed military and intelligence. To what extent is religious extremism in Pakistan an American creation?

The Americans inadvertently expanded religious extremism in Pakistan. But if you go back in history, Pakistan was already involved in supporting religious extremism in Afghanistan when the Americans launched their massive aid program for Afghan mujahedeen after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Religious extremist groups have been in Pakistan since 1947. And some of them have been embraced by the state as a means of nation-building. The United States did not understand those social forces, and on many occasions, ended up inadvertently helping groups that eventually helped the extremists.

Q. You describe a memo on Pakistan’s strategic threats, written by General Kayani [Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief of staff], which reads remarkably like a document written in 1959 by President [Mohammad] Ayub Khan. Is Pakistan’s view of its interests really that outdated?

It is. Pakistan has become a uni-focal state. The only focus is, “how do we wrest Kashmir from India?” Even the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, when he came to Pakistan, said to the Pakistanis, “You should contemplate the model we have for Taiwan,” which is that China claims Taiwan but does not do anything physically to try and take it back. Instead, it is focusing in its economic development and its modernization.

Q. You’ve had your ups and downs in Pakistan, most recently with the accusation that you asked the Obama administration to help thwart a military coup after the killing of Osama bin Laden. What do your own ordeals illustrate about the hazards of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship?

My ordeals reveal that when people believe somebody is an enemy, that anybody who is trying to serve as a bridge with them will be seen as the enemy as well. There was no coup attempt in 2011 after the Osama bin Laden raid, and therefore, there was no need to thwart it. As ambassador, I had access to almost everybody in Washington, D.C. Why would I need a businessman of dubious credentials to deliver a memo for me? But the fact that such a fantasy-based story found so much traction in Pakistan that I was forced not only to resign, but that my life was put in jeopardy shows the pathology of the relationship.

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