Shadow Government

A missed opportunity in Islamabad?

I have no idea if the reports are true that Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Hussein Haqqani, attempted to orchestrate a civilian coup against the Pakistani Army and intelligence establishment. I have read Haqqani’s book, so I can at least affirm that the alleged coup memo is certainly consistent with Haqqani’s view of ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

I have no idea if the reports are true that Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Hussein Haqqani, attempted to orchestrate a civilian coup against the Pakistani Army and intelligence establishment. I have read Haqqani’s book, so I can at least affirm that the alleged coup memo is certainly consistent with Haqqani’s view of the Pakistani Army and his understanding of the roots of his country’s perennial crisis. In Haqqani’s view, the ties between militant Islamist groups and the Pakistani military date all the way to Pakistan’s founding and are the defining feature of Pakistani history (a view other scholars, like David Gartenstein-Ross, have criticized as too simplistic).

Apparently, Admiral Mike Mullen ignored the coup memo — which offered to oust the leadership of the Army and ISI and install pro-American replacements, hand over remnants of al Qaida and the Taliban, authorize unilateral U.S. ground strikes on Pakistani soil, and shut down Directorate S of the ISI — because he believed it was not credible.

He was probably right. The memo reads like something a Hollywood screenwriter would dream up, not an international diplomat. And even if Haqqani and Zardari were behind the memo, it is doubtful that they could have pulled off the coup. Every civilian leader in Pakistan’s history since the first military coup has tried to weaken the power of the military establishment. And every one has eventually been overthrown. Zulfikar Bhutto was executed, Benazir Bhutto was dismissed and eventually assassinated by Islamists, and Sharif was overthrown and exiled and has corruption charges pending against him. The Pakistani military has all the guns and no incentive to surrender power. The memo is naive in its belief that Pakistan’s civilians could simply flip a switch or announce a decision, and suddenly transform Pakistan’s political culture.

However, that does not excuse Mullen’s inaction. The memo might be incredible, but it still presented an opportunity for the United States. I find it amazing that Mullen had to "search" his records to "discover" that he had indeed received the memo-which almost certainly means the White House was never made aware of the memo. That represents an astonishing failure to recognize and act on a potentially valuable lead. It is especially troubling considering the strategic and political implications of the memo’s contents.

U.S. officials could have pursued the idea without officially condoning it, let it be known that they had offered to meet with the author, quietly encouraged him to develop the idea more fully, or leaked the memo. These moves would have put pressure on the military establishment, communicated the U.S.’s waning patience and our interest in developing ties to other actors in Pakistan, and emboldened the civilians while maintaining a thin veneer of deniability for the U.S. and Zardari.

Of course it would be risky and could have provoked the Pakistani military to move against the civilian government. (Though even that is unlikely: they haven’t overthrown Zardari yet even though the memo has actually now been leaked). In any case, the military pretty much runs the government in all but name anyway, so a military coup would only pull back the curtain without changing who is actually in charge. There is little evidence that the fiction of civilian authority in Pakistan has restrained the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment from pursuing its own foreign policy. U.S.-Pakistan relations are so bad that it’s not like we have anything to lose.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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