He has been described as a “seasoned operator” and Pakistan’s best captain for the treacherous political playing field that is diplomacy in Washington. But Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, used the social media site Twitter a few hours ago to say that he was “Heading back to the motherland”.
At the time of writing, it’s unclear whether he is in fact on his way to Pakistan. Some suggest his wife has fled the country for fear that he would be arrested on his return.
The country he flies into is baying for his blood. Opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was quoted in local media saying: “This issue won’t get resolved by somebody’s resignation. It constitutes a treason charge.”
Treason is a big word. Haqqani is under fire for allegedly helping a Pakistani-American businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, to secretly convey to the then top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, a plea.
The memo claims Pakistan’s government seeks US backing to take action against the country’s own military.
The scandal goes right to the top, with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, who supposedly approved the contents of the memo.
The memo’s existence was confirmed by Mullen.
Its contents, to recap, contained a plea for help to remove Pakistan’s senior military and intelligence leadership for fears they would take over in a military coup, and in return Pakistan would cut ties with armed groups that continue to fight American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
It was delivered a few days after the death of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Due to the anger in the country at the time of his death, President Zardari reportedly feared a military takeover at that time.
At first Haqqani offered to resign, saying he had done nothing wrong and that he had no contact with the Pakistani businessman.
But then a few days ago text messages sent via the Blackberry messaging system surfaced that detailed conversations between the two men. This allegation threw into doubt Haqqani’s version of events.
Ijaz says he has no idea whether Haqqani was acting on his own or at the request of the Pakistani president.
There’s no doubt that Haqqani is in a difficult position. A mutual friend of his told me from Islamabad that he was disappointed in the way he tried to defend himself.
“If I was him, I would threaten to sue any publication that ran the allegations, say that I was flying back to Islamabad to discuss this with my president,” the friend said. “Instead he has resorted to language that seems to play on his patriotism.”
The reason Haqqani has gone down the route of national pride is simple when you understand Pakistan.
When you call into question the role of the army in Pakistan, you call into question your own patriotism. National Security is one the biggest issues in the country and with the challenges Pakistan faces on the eastern and western borders, it’s no surprise that the army is ingrained in daily life.
Eyeing an opportunity, Pakistan’s media and opposition have gone into overdrive. The biggest opposition party is organising demonstrations and the former Pakistan prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has said he “easily” believes that memo was written by Haqqani.
But is another game taking place here? Nawaz Sharif is under pressure in his own home base of the Punjab. Once a shoo-in for the next government, his party has taken a hammering from former cricket player turned politician Imran Khan.
Khan’s recent rallies have drawn huge crowds and many observers are beginning to wonder whether Sharif can continue to count on his political constituency.
So it’s in his and his party’s interest to ramp up the language and use the media to demand action against those involved.
But in doing so, he could be taking the first step in toppling the government before elections are due to be held in 2013.
At this stage it’s anyone’s guess, but if you were to exploit a weak government and thwart a rival political party, then now would seem a good time as any.
Pakistan has been here before. In the 1990s, governments came and fell before they could complete a full term, and after a decade of it the army stepped in and out went civilian rule.
There aren’t many in the country who want that.
Pakistan needs to show the world it can handle a scandal of this magnitude. The army must be seen to stay out of civilian affairs.
The opposition must be seen to act with maturity and use the country’s institutions to demand action and the government must be seen to investigate the allegations with openness and clarity.
But that’s difficult in a country where power can be concentrated and compartmentalised.
With so many interests, Pakistan needs to help itself.
From this crisis comes an opportunity for the country to see that its politicians can handle such sensitive issues. But if past crises are anything to go by, then Asif Ali Zardari has proved he is as shrewd a Pakistani political operator as anyone before him.
He could well manage to sweep the whole thing under the carpet by the use of endless commissions, meetings and working groups that will bury the issue until another crisis comes along.
That would be a shame, for Pakistan and for the region.
There is a true historic opportunity here, not only to see the country’s democratic institutions rise up to the challenge, but to openly debate the role the army plays without fear of anyone questioning your patriotism.
However, Pakistan is not known for political maturity. After all, this country is less than 70 years old and, for much of its history, has not been under democratic rule.
In the coming days more and more details on Memogate will emerge, and a fuller picture may well be available to us. But whatever happens Pakistan’s relationship with its own army is now firmly under the spotlight.