For 65 years Pakistanis have been conducting one of modern history’s great experiments: Can a nation conceived as Islamic be free and democratic-- the vision of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah? Or will Pakistan’s identity be defined by “forces that want us to live in fear—fear of external and internal enemies."
The words quoted above were spoken by Husain Haqqani to the Wall Street Journal’s Mira Sethi. Until November, Haqqani was Pakistan's ambassador to Washington where he was a popular figure, a proud Pakistani patriot and a liberal-democratic Muslim intellectual tirelessly making the case that Pakistan should be seen as an important ally deserving of respect, moral support and material assistance.
Haqqani is now back in Pakistan – a guest in the home of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and, as Sethi phrases it, the “de facto prisoner of the Pakistani generals whose ire he has provoked.” Beyond the doors of Gilani’s Islamabad residence, Haqqani fears, assassins await.
This is not just about one man: If Pakistan has become a nation that can’t tolerate a Husain Haqqani, Pakistan has become an intolerant nation, a nation in danger of becoming what Haqqani’s wife, parliamentarian Farahnaz Ispahani, has called a “militarized Islamist state.” Certainly, it would be time to stop regarding Pakistan as a friend of the United States.
When I was last in Pakistan, two years ago, on a visit sponsored by the State Department, the U.S. Congress had just approved – thanks in large measure to Haqqani’s efforts – a $7.5 billion aid package. To my shock, this elicited little gratitude and much grumbling. Why? Because American envoys were to ensure that American taxpayer dollars would be spent to alleviate poverty and fight terrorists -- not for other purposes. People were angry with Haqqani for having accepted such “conditionality.”
I recall the U.S. ambassador getting grilled on a Pakistani television program and sounding apologetic. I told anyone who asked – and some who didn’t --- that aid is not an entitlement; that we Americans have every right to specify how our money should be spent; that Haqqani was correct not to complain about such commonsensical restrictions; and that if other Pakistanis disagree they can tear up our checks. No hard feelings.
Haqqani’s current troubles began last October when an American businessman of Pakistani descent, Mansoor Ijaz, alleged that a "senior Pakistani diplomat" had asked him to pass a memo to Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seeking America’s help in preventing a military coup in Pakistan. Mullen later said he did not give serious attention to the memo – which was unsigned and lacked the imprimatur of the Pakistani government.
Haqqani has denied writing the memo. But when he returned to Pakistan in November, the military seized his passport and the Supreme Court banned him from leaving the country. As Haqqani told Sethi, the affair boils down to nothing more than “a memo written by an American [presumably Ijaz] and delivered … to an American military official who consigned it to the dustbin.” Sethi raises another question: Why would anyone consider it a scandal – the Pakistani media have taken to calling it “Memogate” -- to want to protect Pakistan’s elected leaders from an illegal military coup? If Haqqani did worry about such a possibility, why would that make him a “traitor” and an “American agent” as is being alleged by his enemies?
In answering those questions, Pakistanis will define who they are and who they wish to become. On my first visit to the country, almost 30 years ago, I traveled by motorcycle from Karachi to Islamabad (accompanying fabled publisher Malcolm Forbes so this wasn’t exactly Che Guevara’s “Motorcycle Diaries”) discovering a nation that was both Islamic and welcoming. Later, guided by a former Pakistani army officer – a marvelous man whom I still count as a friend-- I trekked in the mountains near Kashmir and in the Swat Valley, with stops in Hunza and Gilgit, believed by some to have inspired the legend of Shangri-La.
During my last visit, however, Pakistan was different. Over the course of a single week, four terrorist attacks were carried out -- one of them targeting the Pakistani equivalent of the Pentagon where Taliban insurgents, armed with automatic weapons, grenades, and rocket launchers, fought for 22 hours. I expected such violence to outrage Pakistanis – to make them implacable foes of terrorism and the ideologies that drive it. But that was not necessarily the case.
A too-common view: The Taliban that attacks Pakistanis should be condemned but the Taliban that attacks Americans may be condoned. America, after all, had wronged Afghanistan by abandoning it after the Soviet defeat, and then had wronged it a second time by returning. The self-contradiction in these indictments generally went unrecognized.
Many Pakistanis were as gracious and friendly as ever. But not all. When I spoke at one university about the evils of terrorism and the kind of Pakistan envisioned by Jinnah, a student threw a shoe at me, then limped off to boast to the press of his courage and defiance. The next day, this was front-page news throughout Pakistan.
I had to be guarded by armed men (whom I had to hope I could trust). I was instructed not to linger long in public because should a suspicious foreigner like me be spotted, a phone call might be made and within minutes those specializing in express abductions would have completed their assignment.
Now, such agents of the “forces that want us to live in fear” may be lingering in the shadows not far from the house in which Haqqani is a virtual prisoner. Putting a brave face on the situation, he told Sethi that “just as the KGB and the Stasi did not succeed in suppressing the spirit of the Soviet and East German people, these forces won't succeed in Pakistan in the long run, either."
Haqqani is himself the test of that thesis. Here’s the first thing that the American, British, Canadian and other Western governments should do (indeed, should have done by now): Send their ambassadors in Islamabad to take tea with Haqqani. That would send a message that if Pakistan fails this test, there will be consequences.