Is the cure for Pakistan’s schizo-statehood worse than the disease?

Why should Pakistan’s smart, hard-working ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani have to resign for doing his job? After all, if as has been asserted, he was involved in getting a back-channel note passed from Pakistan’s president to Admiral Mike Mullen when Mullen was chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, isn’t that ...

SHAUN TANDON/AFP/Getty Images
SHAUN TANDON/AFP/Getty Images
SHAUN TANDON/AFP/Getty Images

Why should Pakistan's smart, hard-working ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani have to resign for doing his job? After all, if as has been asserted, he was involved in getting a back-channel note passed from Pakistan's president to Admiral Mike Mullen when Mullen was chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, isn't that what ambassadors do for their bosses? Yes, it's embarrassing if the note offered to reshuffle the leaders of Pakistan's military and intelligence services in exchange for U.S. assistance in quashing a potential coup. And yes, it's even more embarrassing that Mullen's staff asserts he more or less totally ignored the note.

But let's be honest, isn't the real problem here that a message that was supposed to be on the down-low was found out? (And doesn't that suggest the real mistake was channeling the note through a Pakistani-American businessman who couldn't keep his mouth shut?)

On a deeper level, doesn't the entire incident simply further confirm the fact long-acknowledged by Pakistan hands (and anyone else who's paying attention) that this country seems to be emulating the Chinese model in Hong Kong: one country, two systems? Given the depth, history and tensions associated with the divides between that country's civilian political establishment and its military-intelligence establishment, isn't the truth about Pakistan that is one of the world's true schizo-states?

Why should Pakistan’s smart, hard-working ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani have to resign for doing his job? After all, if as has been asserted, he was involved in getting a back-channel note passed from Pakistan’s president to Admiral Mike Mullen when Mullen was chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, isn’t that what ambassadors do for their bosses? Yes, it’s embarrassing if the note offered to reshuffle the leaders of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services in exchange for U.S. assistance in quashing a potential coup. And yes, it’s even more embarrassing that Mullen’s staff asserts he more or less totally ignored the note.

But let’s be honest, isn’t the real problem here that a message that was supposed to be on the down-low was found out? (And doesn’t that suggest the real mistake was channeling the note through a Pakistani-American businessman who couldn’t keep his mouth shut?)

On a deeper level, doesn’t the entire incident simply further confirm the fact long-acknowledged by Pakistan hands (and anyone else who’s paying attention) that this country seems to be emulating the Chinese model in Hong Kong: one country, two systems? Given the depth, history and tensions associated with the divides between that country’s civilian political establishment and its military-intelligence establishment, isn’t the truth about Pakistan that is one of the world’s true schizo-states?

It is the fact that the civilian government has never been able to assert effective authority over the military or the ISI that has led to the repeated instances of the government promising one thing while its security apparatus was doing another. It is why the country is viewed by the charitable in Washington as a "frenemy." (The less charitable simply view it as an enemy we have to work with, the diplomatic equivalent of a hostile witness in a court case.) In fact, it is why I have also heard more than one Pakistani diplomat use the same term to refer to their own country’s relationship with the United States in the past year or so. Admittedly, the Pakistani diplomatic corps tends to represent the civilian government and are so regularly frustrated in their duties by the military and the intelligence services that they are often even more openly hostile to them than are the Americans who by now are simply resigned to their lying and coddling of extremists.

In fact this entire incident underscores why it is misleading and dangerous to think of Pakistan as a unitary country. Not only are its institutions divided, but so too are its people. For every cluster of extremists or those who view their region and much of the world with paranoia-fed hostility, there are masses who seek peace, stability and prosperity and would happily be done with the costly distractions of fighting and divisiveness — whether internally or, for example, with neighbors like India.

The challenge for the United States and the rest of the world is to manage to work with constructive, sympathetic elements in Pakistan while somehow containing the threat posed by the others, notably those in the ISI and the military who somehow feel it is in the country’s interest to support militant groups and to grow the country’s nuclear capabilities. Unfortunately, the outlook for managing that challenge does not look good. The civilian government, even if it can hang on for a while longer, is weak and electoral challenges from groups supported by and sympathetic to the military look likely to grow stronger. The nuclear weapons program only looks to grow more dangerous … and thus we will become even more dependent on the dubious elements of the Pakistan establishment to look out for our most pressing security interests. The country faces profound economic risks that could easily inflame unrest, undercut civilian authority and lead to a push back for the stronger hand of military leadership. And the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will undoubtedly trigger and effort by the Pakistani security elites to support their allies among the Taliban in the struggle for control that will undoubtedly come as the power void in that country next door to Pakistan grows.

As a consequence, our complex and tense relationship with Pakistan is only likely to grow more tense as the complex and tense relationships within the country do as well. Perhaps the greater problem is that the more likely "cure" for schizo-statehood will be a return to military rule. While some will argue this offers desirable stability, it is worth remembering just how that has worked out in the past. It has resulted in a country that unsettled the region and the world with its rogue nuclear program and its support for terrorist and extremist groups. While the illusion was momentary institutional stability in Islamabad, the result was not only undemocratic, it was deeply destabilizing and profoundly dangerous. And that is why anyone with an interest in Pakistan or the region should resist the allure of a return to such faux "stability." Because as schizoid as the situation we face is here, we need to remember that some of the divisions mean that there are forces in the country fighting for democracy, for genuine progress, for an end to conflict and for the kind of civilian control of the security apparatus that is essential to any healthy state.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.