The Last Friendly Pakistani

The departure of Amb. Husain Haqqani could mark the start of a new era of U.S.-Pakistan cold war

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Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States / AP

Husain Haqqani was at once the benign face of Pakistan's U.S.-friendly civilian government and one of his country's most trenchant critics when it came to the enduring power of the Pakistani military. Now he has been forced to resign as ambassador to the U.S., the victim of allegations at home that he sought to enlist Washington's help in forestalling a Pakistani military coup.

Haqqani's departure marks yet another sharp downturn in the badly deteriorating alliance between Washington and Islamabad, as well as the latest severe blow to the tottering government of Haqqani's patron, the deeply unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari. But more than that, his resignation could signal the beginning of a new and far more distant relationship between two countries whose interests now only occasionally overlap, a relationship that resembles a kind of cold war.

This may happen, ironically enough, through forced elections rather than a military coup, says Christine Fair of Georgetown University. Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani is not eager to follow the path of his predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a controversial coup in 1999 and ran the country for more than eight tumultuous years. "But now they have someone waiting in the shadows to run: Imran Khan," Fair said.

Khan, the former playboy cricketer, has in recent years become a pious Muslim hard-liner who both appeals to the Pakistani public and is said to be largely supportive of the army's place atop Pakistani society. "He supports the Afghan Taliban," Fair said. "And he doesn't support military action against Pakistan Taliban."

The Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus tend to back, or at least tolerate, both Taliban movements as a counterbalance against India, a relationship that is likely to deepen almost to the same point it was "on Sept. 10, 2001," before the U.S. demanded Islamabad's help against the Taliban and al-Qaida, Fair added. "We're leaving, so they have absolutely no reason to cooperate in Afghanistan."

An atmosphere of continual frigidity between the U.S. and Pakistan is unlikely to mean outright hostilities; the Pakistanis continue to cooperate against al-Qaida targets, U.S. intelligence officials say. But it does mean that U.S. officials may have to practice a form of containment policy against Islamabad, especially given its nuclear arsenal.

Haqqani's resignation was accepted on Wednesday after he was called back to Islamabad to explain his alleged part in an unsigned memo sent earlier this year to then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. The memo allegedly requested U.S. support of the Zardari government following the May 2 bin Laden raid in Abbottabad , the surprise nature of which deeply upset the Pakistani military.

Haqqani himself seems to have fallen victim to a tendency in Pakistani politics that he warned of in a 2005 book, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. Haqqani, then a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, wrote that Pakistan would remain trapped forever in a Faustian embrace with dangerous Islamists as long as the military continued to dominate Pakistani politics. The military, he argued, has used the unifying principle of Islam and the perceived threat from majority-Hindu India to justify its place at the center of Pakistani politics. "Unless Islamabad's objectives are redefined to focus on economic prosperity and popular participation in governance--which the military as an institution remains reluctant to do--the state will continue to turn to Islam as a national unifier," he wrote.

As long as  America relies on military strongmen in Islamabad, Haqqani said, this Faustian bargain will persist and radical Islamists will have a safe haven inside Pakistan--a nuclear-armed country that also, because of the military-Islamic ethos that rules, will likely always be a proliferation threat. Little of that seems to have changed.