Who Tells Washington About Pakistan? And Is That Appropriate?

by Joshua Foust on 5/11/2009

Nick Schmidle’s book on Pakistan is out. I sure would like a copy to review here (hint hint, Henry Holt Co.). It’s incipient publication reminds me of something, namely that Washington—like, perhaps other policy-centers in the U.S. and around the world—tends to have its “favorites” when it comes to learning about other cultures. Ahmed Rashid is the penultimate go-to guy on the Taliban; Fred Starr is the guy they consult about Central Asia; and so on. When it comes to Pakistan, no one seems to have the same clout in terms of focusing coverage and discourse quite like the current Pakistani Ambassador, Hussain Haqqani.

Mr. Haqqani has written what a lot of people consider to be the bible on Pakistan. Drafted during a Fellowship with the Brookings Institution, it has carried a fairly large amount of influence in U.S policy circles. As a literature review of some Pakistan scholarship and history, it is not terrible. The problem is, Mr. Haqqani, who is currently Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., is untrustworthy:

Mr. Haqqani readily admits shifting his allegiances over the years. But he denies being an opportunist, saying he underwent a personal journey from being an Islamic activist in his youth to a conservative supporter of Mr. Sharif to an acolyte of the populism of the Bhutto clan.

“Is changing one’s opinion opportunism?” he said. “Opportunism would be if I got commercial or financial gain from changing my opinion, and that charge has never been made of me.”

Mr. Haqqani speaks in lucid, well-rounded sentences that suggest his background as a journalist and commentator. He is catnip for American journalists, offering a mix of high-minded analysis and street-corner gossip. (The New York Times put him on a retainer for several months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when he was working as a journalist, to help its correspondents better understand Pakistan.) But he can also be prickly and peremptory, using his new post to hector reporters, editors and policymakers over perceived slights or misinterpretations. (Emphasis added–ed.)

Hrm. A friend of mine, who used to work as a journalist in Pakistan, considers the man, “a corrupt, evil, twisted, unprincipled genius” who is “absolutely untrustworthy.” These are strong words from a man who is normally very measured in his analyses. The trouble comes into Haqqani’s “shifting allegiances,” which have gone from being a mouthpiece of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, an ISI-affiliated political party formed in 1988 for the explicit purpose of opposing Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (and which birthed that year the political career of Nawaz Sharif), to Bhutto spokesman in 1993, to various ambassadorial positions (often described as “exile” for his connection to unpopular politicians), then to the U.S. where he made his name trying to “explain Pakistan.” As the story above indicates, he has also had an out-sized influence on how the New York Times chooses to portray Pakistan—which perhaps could help explain the severity of their coverage of the recent Pakistani Taliban offensives.

Regardless of where his opportunism takes him, Mr. Haqqani’s impact on the American policy-making establishment probably cannot be underestimated. And when the good ambassador makes sage pronouncements about his country, they need to be double-checked—something the reporters who cover him tend not to do.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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