Husain Haqqani is a writer, academic and former diplomat. His new book Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding seeks to provide a compassionate overview of the relationship between these two countries. Having grown up in Pakistan, lived in the United States for more than a decade, and worked as a liaison official between the two, Haqqani appears well placed to disentangle the complexities of this relationship. He has long been considered an authority on Pakistan in American academic circles—his book Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military has been called a definitive account—but this does not help untangle the sore question of his loyalties that arose recently.
In 2011, after a judicial commission in Pakistan concluded that he had authored a memorandum received by Admiral Mike Mullen of the US Navy requesting US intervention in Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, Haqqani resigned as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, a position he’d held since 2008. Haqqani’s involvement drained him of credibility in the web of Pakistani politics, where loyalties are often tortured to begin with, but made him a kind of hero in sections of the American press. The Atlantic called him ‘The Last Friendly Pakistani’ and The Wall Street Journal suggested that had the accusations against him been true, it would only have made him a patriot.
Among Pakistanis commenting on Pakistan, Haqqani at times appears—to borrow a phrase from You’ve Got Mail—“a lone reed”. Except that he is “standing tall, waving boldly” not in “the corrupt sands of capitalism” so much as in an inconvenient swamp of anti-Americanism. As he states in the introduction to his book, Haqqani is ‘convinced that the United States remains a force for good in the world’.
His characterisation of the relationship between the US and Pakistan is fairly benign, his narrative of their history more screwball comedy than Bond movie, in which all problems are a result of mix-ups or immaturity or insecurity, not of sinister motives or ambitious villains.
Through the interview, he wishes luck to Nawaz Sharif, his criticism of whom led to his exile from Pakistan in 1999; he refers to Imran Khan as a “nice guy” whose “understanding of socio-political phenomena is very, very, very limited”; and he cites Tariq Ali as a commentator on Pakistan who some people take seriously, clarifying that he himself is not one of those people. Though he says he is more suited to writing than diplomacy, his answers suggest he is a better diplomat than he readily admits. Excerpts:
Q You’ve lived in the US since 2002. You are known among Pakistani commentators to be very pro-US and were recently accused of having acted on those sympathies. How do you think living in the US, not Pakistan, over this turbulent decade has influenced the way you approach Pakistani affairs?
A …Looking back at history and trying to understand and unravel a relationship should not be affected by the current climate within Pakistan. As you see in my book, I have pointed out that the anti-Americanism that people sense in Pakistan is not new… I had a less hostile view of the United States [than those around me] long before I ever visited the [country]. I just didn’t buy into the views that find resonance among Pakistanis about the United States. I disagree with elements of US foreign policy, [and] with some of the stuff that happens in American politics and even in American society, but living in the United States has enabled me to understand the weakness of the anti-American argument and sentiment in Pakistan.
The Americans have never wanted to harm Pakistan. In my research, I found many efforts by them to try and help Pakistan even when those were ill-conceived efforts. So I am totally unfazed by the suggestions of pro-American sympathies. If anything, I am somebody who is trying to be a bridge between two countries that have been allies, have said they want to be allies, but have not been able to figure out why they can’t be allies.
Q How deeply entrenched is anti-American sentiment on the ground in Pakistan? You suggest in your book that it is merely fear mongering…
A If you read the account that I have put together, as early as 1946 leaders of the Muslim League were speaking out against the United States as a means of getting American attention, because obviously, at that time there was no Pakistan, and neither Indian Muslims nor the would-be state of Pakistan actually had any genuine grievance against America—[they] could not have [had any] as early as that.
I think the anti-Americanism in Pakistan is partly the result of what people are told. From [its] inception, Pakistan’s leaders have been reluctant to explain what Pakistan got from America or what they were seeking from America while telling the people that they were under pressure from the Americans. That said, the Americans have not always handled Pakistan right; just as they have not been able to handle many countries right. So there may be some genuine complaints, grievances and criticisms. However, the portrayal of the United States as an enemy of Pakistan is entirely a contrived idea.
Q Is there no sensible position possible against Western intervention in Pakistan?
A Oh, absolutely there is. There may be a few individuals in Pakistan who say that Western interventionism is wrong, but that should not make us anti-Western. They are two different things.
But look: the American embassy in Islamabad was burnt down on the basis of a rumour in 1979, long before the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan and widespread jihadism, long before any drone strikes. So all I’m asking for is an understanding of the sequence of events. Sometimes there can be a legitimate complaint or grievance, but its manifestation can still be not rooted in facts or reality.
The United States has been and can be legitimately criticised and, in fact, some of the smartest and most articulate critics of American foreign policy live in the United States. At the same time the United States has made enormous contributions to human advancement in the last couple of hundred years as well.
The major powers of the world and especially the dominant powers are always resented. But anti-Americanism is unique because Americans are affected by how people perceive them, much more than traditional hegemons, so some people take advantage of it. And I make the case that, in Pakistan, that has been done in a very methodical manner for a long time.
Q How might one take advantage of that?
A Well, when you know somebody wants to be liked, then telling them that ‘we don’t like you’ makes them do things that they would otherwise not do.
Q Such as?
A Give aid to a country that their analysts do not think [of as] important.
...From 1947 to 1954, the Pakistani government was wooing the Americans, asking for large quantums of aid, and was getting nowhere. And then, anti-Americanism started manifesting itself sufficiently for Americans to worry about whether they would lose Pakistan to the Soviets. That made the Americans interested, so it was a good strategy. [But] the fact is, the Soviet Union hadn’t even recognised Pakistan or established diplomatic relations with it, and now that the Kremlin archive is accessible, you can go and find out that the Soviets actually took no interest whatsoever in Pakistan until the Americans got interested. But the prospect of Soviet interest got the Americans interested.
Q One of the ways in which you talk about the relationship between the US and Pakistan is that Pakistan has been to the US a conduit for its interests in the region, and the US, to Pakistan, has been a source of cash. But neither meets the other’s expectations, leading to a cycle of disappointments. What is the way out of this spiral?
A Pakistan needs to get out of the game of dependency. [It] needs to understand that it cannot become a regional power based on the largesse of a global superpower. And in this respect, Indian foreign policy was smarter because, by being non-aligned, India kind of learnt to stand on its own two feet. And now, even if it becomes a close partner to any major power, it will not become dependent on them.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has received $40 billion in American assistance since 1947. That’s far more than the amount that South Korea or Taiwan received... Yet Pakistan is not a major recipient of foreign direct investment, which would have helped it stand on its own two feet. Compare Pakistan with [what] South Korea and Taiwan… have accomplished.
Pakistan cannot forever believe in the notion of existential threats. As a professor of international relations, I can very easily say there are no permanent enemies in the world. Pakistan needs a more pragmatic outlook, a more realistic foreign policy. And in that, Pakistan needs America’s friendship. But Pakistan should not construct this paradigm for its international relations that it will forever consider India an enemy and therefore try to look for cash from America to enable it to be able to compete with India. Pakistan needs to redefine its national priorities. Its priorities should be the prosperity of our people, and economic development of our nation rather than a permanent state of conflict or competition.
[For their part], the Americans need to give up their illusion that aid brings them leverage. No country alters its foreign policy priorities or its perception of the national interest unless realities on the ground make it change them. So the flow of American aid has had the effect of allowing Pakistan’s policymaking establishment to persist with what is essentially folly because they get bailed out by aid. This cycle needs to be broken. The Americans need to develop their relationship with Pakistan on the basis of their own interest, and Pakistan needs to go beyond dependence on the United States to address its own domestic dysfunction, reach out to its neighbours, and basically get out of the conflict economy that has been fuelled by American money.
Q If aid doesn’t buy you desirable foreign policy, why is it such a central part of the way hegemons, particularly the United States of America, interact with the rest of the world?
A Historically, hegemons have not always depended on aid; it’s unique to the United States, because [it] wants to be a benign superpower… On the one hand… one can probably say they are the strongest military power ever in history, but on the other hand, there is the historic American impulse to be a city on the hill, to be a model for the world, to promote free markets and democracy. So they often think that if we speak softly, carry a big stick, and pass around a few bucks, we will definitely be able to buy the friendship and affection of others.
They need to embrace a hard-nosed realism in their foreign policy, albeit within the parameters of their national ideals, but they should not be naive about being able to buy influence…
It’s only when the relationship is multi-dimensional—when aid is the basis of laying the foundation of an economy that then becomes self-sustaining, attracts private investment, creates higher levels of trade and benefits society as a whole, as happened in East Asian countries, [that] the aid is worthwhile. If the aid is a seed that can be nurtured into a tree that then bears fruit, it’s useful. But if you have to give aid as dole, on a regular basis, then you’re just deluding yourself that you are buying influence, because you’re not.
Q You’ve said somewhere that Pakistan needs to transition away from being an ideological state. But if Pakistan’s identity is not ideological—or religious—what is it?
A Personally, I think the question of identity in Pakistan can best be seen in light of the notion of nations being imagined communities. A shared imagination is what Pakistan needs. And the ideological paradigm has been an attempt to try and force people into having a shared imagination—‘We are Muslims of a certain way, therefore we are a nation’. The other way of looking at it is: we happen to be in the same territory through historic circumstances, we are a diverse people, we speak different languages, the majority of us are Muslim but we are Muslims with different denominations and practices and yet we are a nation because we want to be a nation.
A modern nation can have contending visions for its present and future, and it can also have contending explanations for its past. The authoritarian ideological nation does not. And that is important for Pakistan because by fictionalising your past, you do not necessarily help lay the foundations of a better future. Pakistanis sometimes become prisoners of their own narrative.
Q How real is the threat of ‘radical Islam’ in Pakistan? Might it be somewhat overblown in the West? What can be a buttress against such a threat?
A I think it’s a genuine threat, a threat to the fabric of Pakistan and a global threat. I mean, come on. Look at Pakistan, at what has happened. Thousands of people have been killed. Ritual slaughter has been conducted of human beings. Have you seen those videos on YouTube? If you haven’t, see them.
This obsession with the West, and [with any issue] where the West takes a position, defining your righteousness by going to the other side, is as poor as being toadies of Western imperialism, as irrational… I’m very disappointed by especially some people from the European left who kind of end up explaining away Talibanism in terms of American policy. The Taliban had nothing to do with American policy. The Taliban were the Taliban.
One of the things I’ve [established] in my book is that getting the sequence of events is very important. The Americans came to fight the Soviets a few years after Pakistan had already started supporting radical Islamists as part of their strategy to find strategic depth in Afghanistan. The Americans came only to bleed the Soviets and left when they had bled [them]. For them it was a strategic decision, for Pakistan it was an ideological, political decision. And that needs to be understood: who has the primary role here.
Going back to the subject of who can be the buttress against radical Islamism, I think those in Pakistan who offer an alternative vision for [it]. Malala Yousufzai is a buttress against Islamic radicalism. Benazir Bhutto was a buttress against radical Islam. Somebody who says, ‘There is an alternative way for our country to move forward.’
Q What is a book on Pakistan that you think needs to be read, apart from yours? Fiction or non-fiction.
A In fiction, I definitely like Mohammad Hanif much more than others, because I don’t think he tries to be apologetic or anything. He writes very well and he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder that he’s trying to explain to the West that all Muslims are not fundamentalist. He just writes; it’s his expression—which is what fiction should be.
[For] non-fiction, the list might be longer, but all I would say is that Pakistan still as a nation is relatively under-studied. There are far too many subjects that have not been adequately researched, including the whole process of the creation of Pakistan. Very few people have gone into understanding the dynamic that led to Pakistan. One good book is Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman, which explains the politics of Mr Jinnah. Her new book The Pity of Partition, which looks at the Partition through the eyes of Saadat Hasan Manto, is also pretty good.
Q Is writing easier than diplomacy?
A Diplomacy also involves a lot of writing, although it doesn’t always involve writing memos through third parties who are totally off their rocker. But I’m primarily a writer; I’ve always enjoyed writing. I enjoy journalism; I’ve enjoyed writing the books that I’ve written. Diplomacy in the Pakistani environment, especially the kind of role I was trying to play, is a very difficult task. Either you act as just the spokesman of policies you disagree with, or, if you try to influence the policies, you become persona non grata very soon—as I found out, to my chagrin. So I think writing suits my personality, temperament and orientation a lot better than being a diplomat, although it was fun while it lasted.