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Memo Costs Pakistan's Envoy His Job

Nov 23, 2011

Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. has resigned amid a brewing scandal involving his country's civilian leadership and its powerful military.

Hussain Haqqani, a well-regarded ambassador for more than three years, is alleged to have been involved in writing a memo that asked the U.S. to prevent a military coup in Pakistan, something he denies. This latest crisis will do little to calm an already-turbulent relationship between Pakistan and the U.S.

The scandal that has consumed Pakistan over the past few weeks has been dubbed "Memogate." It pulls in officials from the highest offices in both Islamabad and Washington. The controversy centers on a memo sent to Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shortly after the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in May.

The note, according to some reports written on behalf of President Asif Ali Zardari, asks the U.S. to help prevent a military coup. In return, according to the memo, Pakistan's civilian government made a wide range of promises that would be detrimental to the country's military and intelligence networks.

The memo only came to light after a Pakistani businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, wrote about it in the Financial Times. Ijaz said Haqqani asked him to have the letter delivered to Mullen.

Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it's a complicated plot that seems almost surreal.

"I guess it's one of those things that you wouldn't have believed if you hadn't seen it written somewhere," he said. "And you might not believe if it weren't Pakistan, you see these kind of crazy crises come and go."

A spokesman for Mullen said the admiral did see the unsigned letter, but essentially ignored it because he didn't consider it credible. The Pakistani media continued to run with the story, and the pressure built on both Haqqani and Zardari. Haqqani is close to Zardari, but is also known as a critic of Pakistan's powerful military. He told NPR he did not write or deliver the memo, but offered his resignation to help end the controversy.

Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Haqqani didn't have much choice.

"Once this whole idea that he was involved with the elected head of Pakistan and what appeared to be going to the United States to bypass the Pakistan military [caught on, it ] made it extremely difficult for him to stay," he said. "And if he had stayed, [it] would have raised more and more questions about was this part of some plot between the president of Pakistan and the United States."

Still, Cordesman says Pakistan will lose a strong voice in Washington.

"He was somebody who made very articulate cases for Pakistan's position," he said. "What's not clear is a future ambassador who is more politically acceptable in Pakistan is going to be able to do anything as good a job in communicating between his country and the United States."

Haqqani's departure may give Zardari a bit of breathing room, but it's unlikely to quell the uproar over Memogate, Markey says. He says the scandal is just part of a much larger problem in Pakistan — the struggle between the civilian and military leadership.

"The centerpiece of the crisis is the question about whether the military or civilians really run the country. And most analysts have concluded that the military calls the shots in Pakistan," he said. "Even though you have an elected president and parliament, that when push comes to shove, the military decides how Pakistan's foreign policy and, in fact, a lot of its domestic politics will be decided."

Pakistan's military has ruled the country for more than half its 64-year existence, and has either pushed out or seized power from several civilian governments. Markey says that could be what's developing now.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.