Ambassador fends off doubts about Pakistan’s role

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, is also a BU associate professor of international relations. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, is also a BU associate professor of international relations. (Joshua Roberts/ Bloomberg)
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / May 8, 2011

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WASHINGTON — “Watch your back,’’ one angry caller warned. “Americans won’t stand for this.’’

Another: “Protecting the world’s most hated man will surely send you to hell, but I can help you get there quicker.’’

But the threatening phone calls that have been pouring into the Pakistani Embassy in Washington are not what concerns Husain Haqqani most since a US raid killed Osama bin Laden in the heart of his nation.

Haqqani, a Boston University professor who took leave to serve as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, must field pointed calls from sources that hold sway over his country’s crucial alliance with the United States: Pentagon officials and members of Con gress.

Some seek an explanation for why Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence service could not find the terrorist mastermind all these years; others wonder whether Pakistani elements had been secretly protecting him.

Some have called for a halt to the billions in US aid that Pakistan receives.

“There are those who have called to say, ‘Mr. Ambassador, your government has some questions to answer,’ ’’ Haqqani said in an interview this past week. “And there are also those who call to say, ‘We understand that this is complex.’ ’’

Haqqani, who has tried for months to halt deteriorating relations between the two countries, now faces perhaps the greatest challenge of his career: convincing Americans that Pakistan is not to blame for harboring bin Laden.

And he has to do so without concrete facts because much of the truth lies buried in the murky world of spies.

“He has got an impossible job,’’ said Owen Sirrs, a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency who is writing a book about the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

Haqqani has declared that Pakistan will launch an inquiry into the question of whether any government agency knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts. But Pakistan’s powerful military has a history of shrugging off inquiries demanded by its fledgling civilian government. For instance, the government’s attempts last year to investigate whether a Pakistani scientist who gave nuclear secrets to Iran acted alone appear to have been rebuffed. Pakistan’s military has insisted that Abdul Qadeer Khan was a rogue.

Few know better than Haqqani about the complex relationship that the ISI has had with militants. He wrote a book in 2005 criticizing the outsized role that security forces have played in the country and their ties to militants operating in India and Afghanistan. Now he finds himself sticking up for Pakistan’s security forces in interviews with American media. To deflect blame, he has pointed out embarrassing US intelligence mistakes.

“If Whitey Bulger can live undetected by American police for so long, why can’t Osama bin Laden live undetected by Pakistani authorities?’’ he asked the Atlantic.

He frequently notes that Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies have lost more officers in the war against militants than any other country — and arrested more suspected terrorists than any country — but that Americans continue to push for more.

Since bin Laden’s death, various Pakistani officials have issued sometimes contradictory statements. Some have taken credit for assisting with the operation by providing intelligence, while others have criticized the unilateral operation, which they said took place without their knowledge.

The raid has sparked angry questions from the Pakistani public about how foreign helicopters could enter their airspace without their knowledge and why Americans could find bin Laden when the ISI could not.

“They are trying to thread the needle,’’ said Daniel Markey, a former State Department official specializing on Pakistan. “They can’t come across as pro-Al Qaeda, but they also don’t want to sanction a US incursion on their territory.’’

Haqqani’s remarks have been carefully worded explanations of Pakistan’s perspective, even anti-American sentiments that he does not personally agree with.

But Haqqani is faced with the additional difficulty of having to preserve his professional reputation, said Markey.

There is a limit to what he can say and still look forward to a job in academia, Markey said, adding: “Any ambassador who has aspirations after their service faces this problem, because they can only go so far in defending the state line before it may jeopardize their chances of returning to nongovernment posts.’’

Haqqani, an associate professor of international relations at BU since 2004, still has a job waiting for him, said Thomas Testa, spokesman for Boston University. But Testa also said it “could all be subject to change based on how long he decides to carry out his ambassadorship.’’

Haqqani has a reputation as a political survivor capable of navigating difficult situations.

Born in Karachi, he has been everything from a former Islamist student activist to an adviser to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to a consultant for The New York Times. Pakistani newspapers routinely criticize him for being too close to the United States; news of his dismissal has been reported numerous times since he took up his post in 2008. But he has managed to survive.

In Washington, he has been called the “Energizer Bunny of ambassadors,’’ relentlessly hounding those who he thinks have not given Pakistan a fair shake. Brian Katulis, of the Center for American Progress, recalled that Haqqani once took the time to complain to him that a Pakistani representative had not been invited to speak on a small panel the center held about problems facing the country.

“The fact that he picked up the phone and spent 10 minutes, it’s an example of how he has, in the last year or so, played a very assertive role,’’ Katulis said. “They need a vocal advocate like him, at this time when more and more in Washington are questioning, “What have we gotten for all this aid’’ to Pakistan?

When news of bin Laden’s death broke, Haqqani was on a flight to London, en route to Pakistan.

As soon as he landed, he jumped on another plane back to Washington. An aide met him at the airport with a clean shirt and a razor, and he rushed straight to CNN to speak with Wolf Blitzer.

In between a seemingly endless round of interviews, he still found the time to send tweets.

“On a hectic day still checking out twttr 4 amusement generated by ideologically motivated compatriots living in denial,’’ he messaged on Twitter, apparently in reaction to Pakistanis who did not believe bin Laden was dead.

In another: “Pakistan-haters & Pakistani Jihadists & pseudo-nationalists both heaping abuse. I must be doing something right!’’

Even before bin Laden’s death, Haqqani had his hands full. In recent years, the United States has stepped up pressure on Pakistan to attack militants aggressively inside its borders. At the same time, outrage has grown in Pakistan over stepped-up drone strikes that have killed more than 1,000 people, including 15 on Friday, in Pakistan’s volatile tribal areas in the past two years.

Also on Friday, about a thousand people took the streets in Abbottabad, the city where bin Laden was killed, and shouted “Terrorist, terrorist, USA terrorist.’’

Haqqani has his work cut out for him as he tries to fix a broken relationship between two countries that distrust each other deeply, but need each other just as much.

“The most important long-term concern is, ‘How do Americans view Pakistanis and how do Pakistanis look at America?’’ Haqqani said. “That is what needs mending.’’

Farah Stockman can be reached at