Exclusive: Pakistan ambassador says he hasn’t been fired (yet?)

Exclusive: Pakistan ambassador says he hasn’t been fired (yet?)

Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, has not been fired from his job and doesn’t expect to be, he tells The Cable in an exclusive interview.

After the fallout over the cool reception in Islamabad for the Kerry-Lugar Pakistan aid bill, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported Monday that Haqqani would be replaced in Washington amid criticisms that he was responsible for the public relations snafu. But that is not (yet) the case, he said.

“I serve at the pleasure of the president and prime minister of Pakistan and will follow any instructions I’ve been given,” Haqqani said,calling in from a trip to Fort Worth, Texas, where he was attending a ceremony to mark the rollout of the first of 18 F-16 fighter planes being sold to his country.

“So far I’ve not been asked to alter my responsibilities nor have any questions been raised about my conduct,” Haqqani said, adding that he does plan to meet with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi during the latter’s trip to Washington tomorrow.

The scene of Haqqani celebrating the F-16 deal, a long-awaited accomplishment of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, amid the backdrop of the rumors of his sacking, show the complicated dynamic surrounding him. A consummate Beltway insider, his close relationships throughout the Washington establishment are both the root of his success and the reason he is a target of elements in Pakistan who disapprove of close ties with the United States.

U.S. officials in Washington and Islamabad have been conducting triage to stem the bleeding from the negative press coverage surrounding the controversial rollout of the bill. Sources tell The Cable that top American officials dealing with Pakistan are on the case, including special representative Richard Holbrooke, who has made personal calls to Pakistani opposition leaders meant to allay concerns about the aid conditions in the bill and encourage their begrudging support.

The emerging narrative from Pakistani sources close to the issue is that the furor over the bill was largely a tempest in a teapot, a perfect opportunity for anti-American forces in Islamabad to accuse the government of President Asif Ali Zardari of being too close to the Americans, serving their domestic political agenda, as well as exhibiting their general dislike for Haqqani’s long-held stance against military rule.

The crux of this argument can be found in a Washington Post column penned by David Ignatius, which includes:

Some of the popular anger in Islamabad is being manipulated by the Pakistani military, which should know better than to toss a match in the dry tinder of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. And some of it, frankly, is a sign of Pakistani political immaturity. But the larger point is that this hiccup in the relationship is unnecessary. It’s a product of gratuitous language that was written into the legislation despite warnings that it would trigger just this sort of reaction.

Insiders point out that that the aid conditions, which require the U.S. government to report on the Pakistani military’s efforts to combat terrorist groups in their midst, were available for all to see well in advance. Moreover, they say, similar conditions were included in U.S. aid packages dating back to 2001, when President George W. Bush and President Pervez Musharraf were the respective leaders.

Ironically, it is Musharraf’s allies, now in the opposition, who are now harping on such conditions.

Regardless, Haqqani has become the poster child for the criticisms surrounding the rollout of the bill, largely because he is seen by some as too close to the United States. His allies point out that his U.S. ties are exactly what makes him an effective representative for Islamabad.

They also say that if the Pakistani government ends up removing Haqqani, that will only do more harm to U.S.-Pakistani relations and fuel the anti-American forces in Islamabad.

“Most people don’t have the courage to tell the Pakistani people we need the United States, so most of the discourse in Pakistan is anti-American,” one Pakistani source said, adding, “Do they want a spectacle where they will say, ‘We removed an ambassador for having good relations with the U.S.?'”

These sources also say that Haqqani has reams of documents that could embarrass the forces aligned against him and sacking him could open up a Pandora’s box of controversy that the government would not appreciate, which he might do if forced to defend himself after being fired.

In the end, the Kerry-Lugar aid controversy is likely to play out as follows: American officials and lawmakers will make symbolic apologies for failing to explain the aid conditions in the bill, the Pakistani parliament will reluctantly approve the deal, and the money will get spent.

Meanwhile, each side will hopefully have learned a lesson about dealing with the other.

“Washington made a mistake in not understanding Pakistani sensitivities,” one Pakistani source said. “But in reaction, Pakistanis are making a big mistake in not understanding American realities.”

Photo via Pakistani Embassy