Understanding US-Pakistan Relations: Interview with Ambassador Husain Haqqani

Husain Haqqani is former Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States (2008–2011). He is currently Senior Fellow and Director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and co-edits the journal ‘Current Trends in Islamist Ideology’ published by Hudson Institute’s Center for Islam, Democracy and Future of the Muslim World.The following is the transcript of Ambassador Husain Haqqani’s interview with Yale Review of International Studies editor Zeshan Gondal. It has been lightly edited for clarity.


Zeshan Gondal: What was your career trajectory leading up to ambassadorship?

Ambassador Haqqani: I started my career as a journalist and from journalism I became involved in Pakistani politics. From 2002 I was based in the United States as an academic and when Pakistan made its transition from military rule to civilian rule in 2008 the civilian government asked me to serve as ambassador. I had previously served a short stint as Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, also for a civilian government, from 1991 to 1992. My career trajectory is not that of a career foreign service officer or a career diplomat. In some ways I was just an accidental diplomat, someone who happened to be in this country in exile and was seen by the political leaders [in Pakistan] as a good intermediary on their behalf in the United States.


Gondal: One of the most difficult periods in US-Pakistan relations was the period following the killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil. Can you talk about what it was like to serve as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US during this time period?

Haqqani: The discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was in many ways the event that clarified the difficulty of US-Pakistan relations more than anything else. I have written a whole book on the subject of US-Pakistan relations titled Magnificent Delusions, in which I argue that Pakistan and the United States forged an alliance based on very different expectations. Pakistan has been singularly focused on its disputes and problems with India, and has looked upon the United States as a source of money and weaponry to pursue its conflict with India. The American interest in Pakistan has essentially been to take advantage of Pakistan’s geostrategic location – it has been primarily a transactional relationship and there have been many moments when both parties have felt that the other has not kept its end of the bargain.

I think that the shared interest of the two countries started to decline after the end of the Cold War. Pakistan had been one of the countries used by the United States to spy on the Soviet Union and even China during the 1960’s. Pakistan helped the United States wage war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But after that, American interests shifted and Pakistan’s usefulness as a strategically located country diminished. Pakistan, however, did not change its priorities and policies and still expected the United States to remain engaged with Pakistan the same way it did when Pakistan was useful to the US. After 9/11, Pakistan had a new opportunity to try and be useful to the United States and received large amounts of economic and military assistance in return for that usefulness.

The discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan essentially convinced an overwhelming majority of Americans that Pakistan did not keep its promise. During the 1980s, when Pakistan helped the United States fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Pakistan broke promises about not making nuclear weapons but Americans often ignored those or let them pass. In 2011, the United States finally realized that Pakistan not keeping its promises was part of a pattern, and also that maybe Pakistan’s interests are very different from American [ones]. As Ambassador to the United States, I did my best to explain Pakistan’s point of view to the Americans, and tried to explain that perhaps the presence of bin Laden was not necessarily because any one in Pakistan’s government protected him, but the fact remains that either it reflected the incompetence of Pakistani intelligence or the collusion of someone in Pakistan with the most wanted terrorist in the world.

My personal views were always that Pakistan would do much better by shifting its foreign policy orientation. Pakistan needs to mend fences with India instead of constantly playing games with other countries, making and breaking promises in an effort to compete with India. Specifically in the case of the United States, I have always felt that the US has done good by Pakistan. The US has provided Pakistan $45 billion in aid and assistance from 1954. Pakistan should accept the fact that the United States does not consider India an enemy the way that Pakistan does, and should not support jihadi extremists that are as much a threat to Pakistan as they are to the rest of the world.

I was quite open about expressing my views within the Pakistani government while serving as Ambassador. That resulted in some people, especially in Pakistan’s intelligence service, thinking of me as someone who was outside their control and therefore not trustworthy. I was falsely accused of seeking American help against a coup which [Pakistani intelligence] said was not taking place anyways. I was not formally charged with a crime but there was significant media backlash against me and I was labeled everything from being a traitor to Pakistan to being a covert American agent. I decided, after resigning from my office, to fight these allegations and return to the United States to produce scholarship. I’ve continued to make the same arguments that I made within government outside of government. Pakistan has to change and it has to change for its own sake, not just to please the United States.


Gondal: How would you respond to critics who say your positions are too pro-United States and anti-Pakistan?

Haqqani: Those who say such things have obviously bought into a national narrative that is based on absolute falsehoods. The truth is that Pakistan is an unpopular within the United States as the United States is within Pakistan. At the end of the day, people believe what they’re told. The American public knows that Pakistan did not help in finding Osama bin Laden and believes that Pakistan did not help in the war against jihadi extremism. However, they also understand that Pakistan is a major recipient of American assistance and feel that their aid has been wasted. In Pakistan, the people are told that Americans are fair-weather friends and because [Americans] have not helped Pakistan against India, therefore Pakistan should not trust the US. The rest of anti-Americanism in Pakistan is based on conspiracy theories, which abound in the Pakistani media.

Most Pakistanis do not know how much the United States has done to help Pakistan over the years. There was no kinnow orange in Pakistan before Americans provided saplings for it. [The kinnow] was a variety developed in California and isn’t indigenous to Pakistan, and now its Pakistan’s most popular citrus fruit – no one wants to give America credit for that. The eradication of malaria from Pakistan was the result of a United States aid project. The immunization of Pakistani children, which is not yet complete because of opposition by religious extremists in certain parts of the country, particularly in relation to polio, was a result of American assistance.

Another example is PL 480 [Public Law 480] under which for many years Pakistan received American grain on terms that were very easy for Pakistan. For many years from the 1950s and 1960s all the way to the early 70s, Pakistan’s grain production was never enough for its own population, and America provided wheat and Pakistan paid for it in local currency not in hard dollars.

Did Pakistan do something for the US? Absolutely – it provided Americans with a CIA base in the 1960s, which allowed the US to spy on the Soviet Union. But the fundamental problem was always that the Americans kept telling Pakistanis that India may  be your enemy but it is not our enemy, and Pakistanis always wanted the US to fight their battles for them. My response to those who call me pro-American and anti-Pakistan is that what we need is for Pakistanis to start facing reality, not adversely label Pakistanis who invite them to be realistic.


Gondal: What do you see as the cause of the recent uptick in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, and how might Pakistan counter this threat?

Haqqani: Extremism in Pakistan is essentially the result of tolerance towards an ideology of hate. Pakistan has at, at different times, cultivated that hate as a means to building nationalism. For example, in the early years of Pakistan, people were told that Hindu India is a threat for Islamic Pakistan, and therefore we must hate Hindus. Then, it became a Hindu-Zionist conspiracy to finish off Pakistan that Pakistanis were told to beware of. As a result, Pakistanis ended up being extremely tolerant of religious extremism and the war against the Soviets enabled many groups to train for terrorism and militancy.

The Americans helped many countries train guerilla units that would fight in neighboring countries that the Soviets were trying to influence. Honduras was a base for contras who fought in Nicaragua. South Africa was the base for a large guerilla war in Angola. None of those countries became infested with militants like Pakistan. This happened because after the Soviets left [Afghanistan], Pakistan decided to use jihadi extremism as a means of expanding influence in Afghanistan and trying to get Kashmir from India. Even today, Kashmiri jihadi extremists are considered part of the Pakistani mainstream.

The reason [the previous Chief of Army Staff] General Raheel Sharif’s efforts to fight extremists in Waziristan was not enough to finish off terrorism is the same reason as to why General Kayani’s efforts to fight jihadis from the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat valley did not succeed.

If Pakistan tolerates one jihadi group and fights another, the members of the group that are being fought will find protection from the members of the jihadi groups that are not being fought. It’s like sending people out through one door and letting them enter through the other. As a whole, Pakistan does not get rid of the militants. The day Pakistan decides that it will not tolerate extremist ideas, that it will enforce its laws across the board, that it will not allow someone to be lynched over blasphemy allegations, that it will not make heroes out of those the international community has named terrorists or terrorist patrons, that is the day when Pakistan will really succeed in beginning to defeat terrorism.

General Raheel Sharif is a professional soldier and so is [current Chief of Army Staff] General Qamar Bajwa. Both of them made a conscious decision to keep the army from directly intervening in politics, which is a positive development. At the same time, both have shown resolve to fight terrorists that threaten Pakistan. But the change that Pakistan needs is much deeper than that. Unless Pakistan adopts a comprehensive strategy against all terrorists and allows for open debate about the ideas that have shaped Pakistan over the last seven decades, I doubt that a change in the Chief of the Army can make all the difference.


Gondal: Have you seen indications of a shift in US policy towards Pakistan under the Trump administration?

Haqqani: I think the Obama administration still hoped that it would be able to change Pakistan with economic incentives. I doubt that President Trump has any similar inclinations. [Trump] is likely to be a lot tougher on Pakistan, and will probably get the support of the US Congress in doing so. I think the United States now has to stop allowing Pakistani officials to flatly deny things that Americans know are happening. America does have a tremendous intelligence gathering apparatus – with drones and satellites. Americans have had knowledge for years about things happening within Pakistan. But Pakistani officials think that it is their patriotic duty to simply lie to the Americans, and American officials in the past accepted the lies, at least for the purpose of civil conversation.

For example, throughout the 1980s, if you read the statements of the Pakistan government, Pakistan continuously said that it was not building a nuclear weapon. When American intelligence found that Pakistan was actually building nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s officials maintained that no such thing was happening. In 1998, Pakistan publicly tested its nuclear weapons, eight years after the US partially suspended assistance to Pakistan because of its nuclear program. Americans at that moment should have pointed out to Pakistani officials that we’ve noticed that you’ve tested nuclear weapons that you said you’re not making. Throughout the Musharraf presidency, General Musharraf denied that Pakistan was allowing any jihadi or terrorist group to operate or survive within Pakistan. Now, [Musharraf] publicly states that his government supported the Afghan Taliban because that was in his country’s best interest.

I think that the best American policy towards Pakistan would be to try and force Pakistanis to stop assuming that they can just tell a lie and get away with it. That said, we need an honest conversation about what the national interest of Pakistan actually is. That conversation should not just take place between Americans and Pakistanis, but among Pakistanis as well. Is it really in Pakistan’s national interest to pursue gaining Kashmir at the risk of destabilizing our entire society and state? Is it really necessary for Pakistan to try to influence the course of the events in Afghanistan with the help of groups like the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban? Does Pakistan really need [terrorist groups like] Lashkar e- Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad for security when it already has the sixth largest army in the world?

I think that these discussions need to be had, and they need to be had without the flow of large amounts of economic and military aid to Pakistan so that Pakistan is not lulled into the belief that it can adopt bad policies and still receive American support and assistance.


Gondal: With elections for Prime Minister in 2019, what do you see as some of the most important issues in the upcoming Pakistani election cycle?

Haqqani: I haven’t paid much attention to Pakistan’s domestic politics for a while, because the political actors in Pakistan have not changed, nor have the issues. Every political party accuses the other of being corrupt without offering a comprehensive plan for eliminating corruption across the board. None of the political parties are willing to really shape public opinion about Pakistan’s priorities. No one wants to discuss that Pakistan’s literacy rate is not growing at the same rate as the literacy rate of India and Bangladesh. No one wants to offer a solution to Pakistan’s socioeconomic problems that is not wrapped in either religious ideology or cults of personality. Nobody wants to talk about how Pakistan’s various ethnic groups can coexist in harmony by treating all of them fairly instead of treating some as less than others. Since none of these issues are being discussed, I think we will have a political campaign that will not look very different from past campaigns.


Gondal: You’ve been working on a book to commemorate Pakistan’s 70th anniversary since independence on August 14, 2017. Can you share some details about that project?

Haqqani: I’ve already written a book on the relationship between Pakistan’s religious militants and the military and how the idea of Pakistan has largely been shaped by militarism and militancy. That book is called Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. I wrote my second book on US-Pakistan relations titled Magnificent Delusions. Then, I wrote a book on India and Pakistan – Why Can’t We Just Be Friends? And now, I’m writing a book titledReimagining Pakistan in which I am going to raise issues relating to why it is that Pakistan has not been able to achieve its full potential. It will not be a critical book but rather an analytical book, which will tell Pakistanis that acknowledging weaknesses and flaws is the first step towards addressing them. I hope that after this book I can turn to other interests of mine because four books on Pakistan is quite a lot.


Gondal: Do you have any advice for students planning on pursuing a career path in diplomacy or international relations?

Haqqani: Notwithstanding the changes that have come about in the last few years, the world remains interconnected, and international relations will remain a very important field of study. As far as a career in international relations is concerned, it can take any shape, including my own journey from journalism to diplomacy.

I would advise young people to remain interested – the world needs not only knowledge but also engagement, and young people should not just think about careers but about life in totality.

I remember there were moments when the late Richard Holbrooke, an American diplomat who I worked closely with, and I were both very frustrated – he with American policy and I with Pakistani policy. I said to him: “Richard, we are both frustrated. We’re both overworked and underpaid. Why do we do this and how long will we do it?” He replied: “We do it because we want to make a difference, and we will continue to do it for as long as we can make a difference.”

That is what I would advise young people today.



Editors Note: Former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf will visit the Yale on Monday, April 24th to discuss the future of U.S. Pakistan relations with Bob Woodward ’65. For more information, and to register for the event, visit http://news.yale.edu/2017/04/18/talk-feature-pakistan-s-former-president-pervez-musharraf-and-journalist-bob-woodward.