02.21.12

New Pakistan Ambassador Brings Frank Talk to Washington Relations

Sherry Rehman entered the diplomatic fray at the low point of U.S.-Pakistan ties. Can she mend the relationship with a new openness about what’s destroying it?

Pakistan’s new ambassador brings glamour to her critical post, along with a willingness to play hardball. Sherry Rehman embodies the beauty and the boldness of her friend and mentor, Benazir Bhutto. And while it’s not her intention to bring “a victim narrative to Washington,” Rehman served notice that her embassy will make public a weekly scorecard on Pakistani casualties, civilian and military, suffered in the effort to combat terrorism. “They are quite shocking,” she said, and the “staggering” numbers should lower expectations about her country’s ability to “degrade, defeat, and destroy terrorists,” and generate some understanding on the part of its U.S. ally about what the first democratically elected government elected in some years is facing.

Rehman arrives in Washington at a time when the relationship between the two capitals is especially strained. U.S. military aid to Pakistan has been suspended, and the Pakistani Parliament is conducting a review of relations with the U.S. and NATO in the wake of a deadly cross-border attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. “It was indeed shocking to see the flag-draped bodies … martyred in the line of active duty … at the hands of our allies,” Rehman told an audience last Wednesday at the Institute of Peace in Washington. In the absence of an immediate apology, the tragic event caused widespread protests in Pakistan. 

While the incident left a strong mark, Rehman contended it was not the sole motive for Pakistan’s call for a strategic rethink. “A reset was needed.” The relationship, she said, has been freighted on both sides with too much hyperbole, with the “marriage metaphor” and its extremes of love and hate, and divorce, no longer useful. “It is time that this relationship matured,” she said. And if anyone can bridge what she called the “cognitive dissonance” between these two nations, it might be Rehman.

Educated in the U.S. at Smith College, Rehman started her career in journalism and is the former editor of Pakistan’s leading news magazine, The Herald. She was a close adviser and protégé of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007 while campaigning for prime minister, a post she had held twice before. Like Bhutto, Rehman is an outspoken advocate for the empowerment of women and the rights of minorities. “The women’s power grid is very strong, and I intend to work that to my advantage,” she told the audience of diplomats and foreign-policy professionals.  

Noting that she has a rather unusual profile for an ambassador to the U.S. from her country, former Bush national-security adviser Stephen Hadley asked Rehman whether what she’s doing, and the risks she’s taking, are “worth it” or “a hopeless task,” given the fact that the trend seems to be running so clearly against the issues she is most identified with. He recalled meeting with her in Karachi, where for a time she couldn’t leave her house for fear of losing her life. Rehman had spoken out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which were used to sentence to death a Christian woman for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad after co-workers tried to coerce her to convert to Islam. Two other politicians who publicly took that stand were assassinated.

Rehman’s predecessor, Husain Haqqani, has been under house arrest in Pakistan after a memo he allegedly was involved in requested U.S. help in reforming Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies. Haqqani was a well-liked and visible presence in Washington, and while he disputes the significance of the memo and his involvement, whatever the facts, the incident reveals the perilous ground that Rehman must navigate.

“The question is: What is our biggest ally doing for us as we stand on the front lines?”

She calls her new post “a red-eye job, given our time difference and the predilection for crisis.” But she wants people to understand “Pakistan is not just about bombs and bullets.” It is the sixth–most populous country in the world, with the largest youth cohort anywhere. It is a hugely diverse country ethnically, linguistically, and religiously, “and most of us live in peace with each other,” she said.

The last good and lasting positive memory of the U.S. was the humanitarian aid airlifted into the country after a devastating earthquake in 2005. She points out that the European Union, with its far more complex structure of laws, has granted Pakistan favored trade status, while the U.S. imposes $360 million in tariffs on Pakistani textiles each year. “The question is, what is our biggest ally doing for us as we stand on the front lines?” she says.

Ask that question in Washington and you’ll get a very different answer as to which country is bearing the biggest burden. Rehman acknowledges that the U.S. relationship is critical to democracy and the new Pakistan she hopes to build. “I for one am known for speaking truth to power,” she says, a quality that has gotten her where she is, and that will be tested not only in Washington but also in Islamabad.