BU’s Haqqani Probes Rocky US-Pakistan Alliance
Former ambassador’s new book offers insider revelations
Husain Haqqani’s face stares with pursed lips from the December 21, 2013, cover of Newsweek Pakistan, with the headline “Husain Haqqani says what Islamabad and Rawalpindi will not.” The article plumbs Haqqani’s new book, in which the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, now a College of Arts & Sciences professor of the practice of international relations, unsparingly chronicles what he calls “an epic misunderstanding” between the two uneasy allies.
In his book, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (PublicAffairs, 2013), Haqqani, who was a CAS associate professor of international relations from 2004 to 2008, when he took a leave of absence to serve as ambassador to the United States, makes the case that mutual false expectations, self-deception, and an ominous misreading of regional dynamics have led relations between the United States and Pakistan to their current low point. The narrative goes behind the scenes during the Cold War, when the United States lavished arms on a Pakistan that was not only far from strategic to US anti-Soviet interests, but intent on using American military aid to strengthen its hand against India. Haqqani also ruminates on the May 2011 raid on the Abbottabad compound of Osama bin Laden, where the world’s most wanted terrorist and his family had holed up in plain sight just 68 miles north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. The former ambassador’s persistent call for Pakistan’s accountability about bin Laden has made him persona non grata in his home country.
A key, liberal-leaning player in Pakistani politics since 1989, Haqqani was Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1992 to 1993 and is the author of several books, among them Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. He is currently a senior fellow and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and director of the BU Center for International Relations.
In his sweeping insider’s history of US-Pakistani relations since Pakistan’s founding in 1947, Haqqani’s purpose “is not to fix blame,” writes former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright in her jacket notes, “but to explain how two countries that have for 60 years described themselves as allies can nevertheless misunderstand each other thoroughly and completely.” Laced with high-level, now declassified White House exchanges that reflect a string of presidential personalities and biases, the book has earned international praise and media attention, including a recent interview with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. But in Pakistan Haqqani has been labeled a traitor for calling his nation’s leadership to task, and he could face charges of treason if he returns there.
BU Today met recently with Haqqani at his Bay State Road office to discuss Magnificent Delusions, why the United States and Pakistan have never been more than “frenemies,” as he puts it, and what he sees as the major challenges facing Pakistan today.
BU Today: How would you characterize America’s half-century-long uneasy dance with its ally Pakistan?
Haqqani: The maxim in international relations is that there are no permanent friends or enemies. There are only national interests. The problem is that Pakistan’s national interest has been defined by its overly dominant military, which was inherited from the British Raj on partition in 1947. That definition does not really coincide with America’s definition of its own interest or what America perceives to be Pakistan’s interest. The American delusion has been that if they just give enough money and arms to Pakistan, it will start feeling sufficiently secure and will stop looking at India as a rival. The Pakistani delusion is that if we get enough money and arms from America, we will be India’s equal.
Why do US leaders continue to misread Pakistan and its motives?
Americans often misread other nations. In some ways the story of Pakistan is just a more elaborate example of how Americans misunderstand other leaders, other governments, and other countries. The American attitude is usually not to look at history—here, when you want to be dismissive of someone you say, “he’s history”—but for most countries history is what shapes their policies.
You write about America’s misguided belief in Pakistan’s strategic significance in the Cold War. How did this come about?
In the 1950s Americans were obsessed with confronting communists. American leaders at that time didn’t pause to think, do these guys really have a problem with communism, and if not, why are we arming them? Pakistan never sent a single soldier to fight communism, anywhere.
What were the consequences of this delusion?
There are three consequences of these mismatched alliances—to prolong India-Pakistan conflict, to make Pakistan increasingly dependent on the United States, and third, to postpone any reform in Pakistan. Not only is the US-Pakistan relationship dysfunctional, it has contributed to increasing the dysfunction of Pakistan as a state.
Pakistan has long been consumed by military buildup and securing arms from the United States, to its people’s detriment. Why haven’t the people risen up in protest, as those in so many other nations have?
Throughout Pakistan’s history there have been public figures, media personalities, and scholars who have questioned the national narrative that has been fed by the military. Some very popular politicians have said, why do we need to look upon India as a permanent enemy? How can Pakistan evolve economically if it puts all its energies to maintaining a huge military establishment? Unfortunately, in a country where there have been three coups and the military has ruled or been a major power behind the scenes, these critical voices have either been drowned out or individuals asking tough questions have been hounded out of the country. But there are still people in Pakistani politics and media who continue to ask tough questions.
How many Pakistanis carry the searing memory of partition and its huge human toll?
About 95 percent of Pakistanis were born after partition, but the Pakistani education system reinforces a national narrative that airbrushes a lot of history out and photoshops a lot of nonhistory into people’s minds. So even though Pakistan is a relatively open country, it has a national discourse that has not always been completely open. Pakistani nationalism has been built around two ideas: antipathy to India, and Islam as a political slogan. So those two mixed together do confuse the people, and don’t forget that half of Pakistanis are illiterate and that 42 percent of school-age children don’t go to school of any sort. Also, there are very well-organized Islamic political parties that use violence to make sure that facts and history are not openly discussed and debated.
You include many behind-the-scenes discussions where American leaders’ attitudes toward Pakistan seem patronizing. How big a factor is Orientalism in US dealings with your country?
There’s a quote in a book by Chester Bowles, a former Democratic congressman and ambassador to India and Nepal, saying that a lot of people who come to this region have no knowledge of it and have the idea that the East is inscrutable. So when they meet people who are very articulate, they fall for that. It’s not only Orientalism, it’s the presumption that a well-educated, British-trained elite is our best bet in running an otherwise unruly nation. That’s also a form of Orientalism—we want these brown sahibs, or masters, to keep the country in place. For example, there is one point when Nixon said Pakistanis shouldn’t be made independent. The kind of friends America is used to are Britain, France, Germany—we know what to expect from them because we are very Eurocentric. With other nations it’s not that easy.
But to be fair, no American leader can spend all his time learning about one country; it comes down to what are the priorities of the moment. And I don’t think American grand strategies are based on trying to understand.
With much US strategy seeming personality-driven and naïve and leaders often ignoring the advice of people more knowledgeable about your area, is there a lack of nuance in American thinking about, for example, the Indo-Pakistan conflict?
America does not have the historic memory of interaction with the rest of the world. American assumptions are based on a very positive, optimistic American view; on the other hand, sometimes Americans get frustrated and bored with prolonged diplomatic exchanges and decide to use force. So in the end, American foreign policy amounts to: who do we shoot and whom do we take out for lunch. This book is as much a critique of American foreign policy as it is of Pakistan’s dysfunction.
Which American presidents understood Pakistan best?
Almost all of them understood Pakistan by the end of their terms. President Eisenhower starts questioning the wisdom of his Pakistan policy in his second term. President Johnson wonders about his policy of giving military aid in 1968, the end of his term, and President George W. Bush writes that he put too much faith in former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. I think the real lesson is there needs to be institutional memory. A lot of people serving in government are telling me that this book helps them, though these things have been said before.
Some reviews have called you pro-American, the context being clearly negative. Would you call yourself pro-American?
I’m not pro-American. I’m pro-Pakistan. Pakistani reviewers can’t find fault with the facts, so they say it’s based on American documents. But Americans declassify their documents after a few years and Pakistan does not. My point of view is that this notion of ignoring facts or whitewashing some of them has hurt Pakistan, so I am doing a service to Pakistan by pointing out to Pakistanis that we have deluded ourselves into trying to be a regional great power by attaching ourselves to American coattails.
Your book makes clear that India’s dealings with the United States have differed strongly from Pakistan’s. Can you tell us about that?
The Indians played a much better game than Pakistan. They chose to be nonaligned in the Cold War, arguing that their economic development needed imports from the United States and the Soviet block. India did not get involved in building a military disproportionately large to its economic size, and laid foundations for a much more industrialized economy. Export is 56 percent of India’s GDP, in Pakistan exports are only 10 percent. There are 106,000 Indian students in American universities today, but just 5,800 from Pakistan. Even making provision for relative differences in population, Pakistan is clearly lagging behind, and all of this is the result of having a unifocal policy that was all about building of the military with American assistance instead of building prosperity through getting what you could from whomever you could. Also, Pakistan and the United States have a primarily government-to-government relationship, while India and the United States have a much more multidimensional relationship. Bollywood movies play in American theaters.
How do ordinary Pakistanis feel about Americans?
Public polls indicate that 83 percent of Pakistanis have a negative view of Americans. It’s based on what people are told, it’s based on a feeling of abandonment by America at different times, and it’s a reaction to being overly dependent.
And how do you think most Americans view Pakistanis?
American perceptions about Pakistan have changed over the last few years. Pakistanis were generally well liked. Most Americans knew Pakistanis as their neighborhood doctor or dentist. But in recent years it’s become one of the three least liked countries in the United States, alongside North Korea and Iran. At the end of the day Americans need to understand that the Pakistani people remain a wonderful people and all that is needed is change in Pakistan’s government and its policy.
What are the US leadership’s biggest misconceptions about Pakistan?
The biggest misconception among American policy makers still remains that America can change Pakistan’s behavior by treating it as an ally and giving more military assistance. It hasn’t worked in the past, and if $40 billion did not change Pakistani policy, more money will not change it either. America needs to encourage Pakistan to look inward, reform its economy, change its educational system, stop costly entanglements in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and get on with life as a normal democracy.
Pakistan has claimed to be complicit in the West’s war on terrorism and the Taliban. How did the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, without Pakistan’s knowledge, sour relations between the two nations?
I have consistently argued that Pakistan has to find out and tell the world who helped Osama stay in Pakistan. Quite clearly somebody helped him, and until we come clean on who that was, the world will remain suspicious. I personally don’t believe that anyone high up in Pakistan government knew about bin Laden’s location. What happened most likely is that individuals sympathetic to bin Laden’s worldview protected him. But Pakistan needs to figure out who those people are and whether some of them are at any official level, whether local or provincial. Unless we come to terms with figuring out the level of penetration of state institutions by jihadis, there may be other embarrassing moments.
Would Pakistan’s leadership prefer you to have left these stories untold and these issues unexamined?
The Pakistani establishment has always preferred to sweep issues under the carpet. They haven’t yet told people they lost the Indo-Pakistani 1965 war, the Bangladeshi crisis has never been fully explained. If any other country lost half its territory and more than half its population, there would be hundreds of books about it. All we do is tell children in school that India interfered and broke up Pakistan. Sometimes people accuse me of exposing too much; they say, you’re being critical of Pakistan. But the truth is, narrating history and compiling it is a service to Pakistan.
Your life here has been described as a kind of exile. Would you return to Pakistan?
I’m not facing any legal charges there, but there is the issue of safety. I would love to go back and make the arguments there that I make here. But I’m enjoying this time in my life—the time to teach, read, write, meet with students. Some politicians and leaders insist on keeping their positions until they die. I’m not one of those.+ Comments