“This FT op-ed of yours is a disaster,” read a BlackBerry message to me on the night of Oct. 10. The sender, Husain Haqqani, was still Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington at the time. Earlier in the evening, the Financial Times had posted my column—“Time to Take On Pakistan’s Jihadist Spies”—on its website, unleashing a political firestorm in Pakistan over my disclosure of a memorandum Haqqani had asked me to help him prepare and deliver to Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the memorandum, Haqqani asked the admiral for help in calming Pakistan’s restive Army chief as fears of an alleged coup whipped through Islamabad in the tense days that followed Osama bin Laden’s death in a Pakistani garrison town. In return, he offered the United States nothing short of a wholesale paradigm shift in Pakistani governance that would transfer essential powers from the Army to civilian leaders, giving Pakistan the veneer of civilian legitimacy that has eluded it since partition from India.
I have a history of involvement in back-channel diplomacy, particularly between the governments of Pakistan and India on the subject of Kashmir and nuclear proliferation, but it is still important to ask why, in this instance, Haqqani chose to come to me. Perhaps because he had tried other interlocutors to deliver the same message and had been refused. Perhaps because the basis of his request—an alleged coup plot—was only a concocted threat and he needed someone who couldn’t verify the postulation in the short time frame required by the ambassador for action. What I am certain of is that Haqqani believed I was the most plausibly deniable back channel he could use. He knew I was disliked by many in Islamabad’s power circles for my strong anti-establishment views. Haqqani also knew I had the connections to get the message quickly and quietly to Mullen. He knew I maintained friendships with former CIA director James Woolsey, former U.S. national-security adviser Gen. James L. Jones, Reagan “Star Wars” commander Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, and others.
Before I had a chance to read and reply to his BlackBerry message, the ambassador called—“Is there anyone else in Isloo [slang for Islamabad] you know who is a ‘senior Pakistani diplomat’?” he asked hurriedly. This was the phrase I’d used in the op-ed to describe the author of the memo to Mullen. Not wanting to be “outed” as the memo’s author, Haqqani insisted that without another name—any name—that might put Pakistan’s press hounds on another diplomat’s scent, all trails emanating from the memorandum would soon lead back to him—or, worse, to his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari.
The cover-up had begun.
Haqqani would orchestrate denials by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry and President’s House in the days after the FT column was published. When those didn’t douse the flames, he had the gall to warn me that he was about to orchestrate a U.S. denial as well—“Are you sure your side won’t deny?” he wrote by BlackBerry to me at 10:38 p.m. on Nov. 1, a week before Admiral Mullen’s unwitting spokesman issued a confused denial that was later retracted. At 10:39, he all but confirmed his complicity when he wrote, “Is it not the nature of a private mission that officials deny it?”
In Islamabad, he was telling Zardari that he had it all under control and that the memo flap would disappear in a few days once all the denials were in place. If the acceptance of multiple petitions by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on Dec. 1 is any indication of the seriousness with which Pakistan’s entire governmental infrastructure takes this issue, the memorandum is not going away anytime soon. Certainly not until the full truth comes out.
A few days before the Mullen denial was posted on Foreign Policy’s blog, The Cable, Haqqani changed his BlackBerry handset for the third time since May. Maybe he hoped that changing PINs would erase his damning conversations from my handset. Unfortunately for him, they remain preserved—now in a bank vault—in exactly their original form on my original device as he and I exchanged them. The constant changing of handsets raised the disturbing specter that Haqqani had persuaded his friends in the U.S. intelligence community to assist him in “scrubbing” his BlackBerry records because my disclosures were not just about to lose him his job, but could potentially uncover sensitive matters of U.S. national interest as well. After all, I was not the only entry on Haqqani’s BlackBerry contact list. Other BlackBerry chats could prove highly embarrassing or prove complicity and culpability if they were made public by Supreme Court action in Pakistan.
Why the cover-up? For the record, Haqqani approached me on May 9; I did not approach him. He asked me to assist him in delivering a message (initially verbal) to Mullen. He now denies this. The message’s content and structure were entirely conceived by him and dictated to me in broad form during our initial 16-minute telephone call, with further refinements during the day by telephone, text, and BlackBerry. He received an initial draft of the memorandum from me by email that evening, “tweaked it” (see image below), said he would call the next morning, and then did so at exactly 9:06:16 for 11 minutes to confirm the final draft I had sent him 15 minutes earlier. He then gave me the required consent to proceed. He denies these facts, but facts do not lie. The message, ultimately delivered in writing rather than verbally due to U.S. skepticism about the verbal utterances of Pakistani officials, was sent by General Jones to Admiral Mullen. Haqqani had assured me that he had his “boss’s approval” near the end of that 9:06 a.m. phone call. I in turn assured General Jones in writing that the memorandum had the approval of the highest political level in Pakistan. The “boss” was an obvious reference to Zardari. Haqqani vehemently denies this. In his resignation offer to Zardari, Haqqani said, “At no point was I asked by you or anyone in the Pakistani government to draft a memo and at no point did I draft or deliver such a memo.”
The investigatory commission ordered by Pakistan’s Supreme Court will soon determine whether Zardari was (a) the progenitor of his trusted protégé’s elaborate scheme; (b) an after-the-fact approver; or (c) completely out of the loop. My bet is that Zardari initiated the plan, gave Haqqani a blanket power of attorney to handle operational details, and, when it was done, gave him a pat on the back when he returned to Islamabad on May 12 with evidence of the job completed.
Haqqani is now trying to deflect attention, and possible culpability, away from Zardari. But why would he fall on his sword for the man he once dubbed “Mr. 10 Percent”? In my opinion, with the benefit of facts that have come to my attention in the days since my FT column appeared, Zardari and Haqqani both knew the U.S. was going to launch a stealth mission to eliminate bin Laden that would violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. They may have even given advance consent after CIA operations on the ground in Pakistan pinpointed the Saudi fugitive’s location. The unilateral U.S. action, they might have surmised, would result in a nation blaming its armed forces and intelligence services for culpability in harboring bin Laden for so many years. They planned to use the Pakistani public’s hue and cry to force the resignations of Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and intelligence chief Gen. Shuja Pasha. Pliable replacements would have been appointed.
If it all went wrong, the Pakistanis could unite in their hatred of America for violating their nation’s sovereignty, with Zardari leading the chorus aimed at Washington. If it went to plan, the long-sought aim of putting civilians (i.e., Zardari & Co.) in charge of the Army would be complete. Washington would have bin Laden’s scalp; Zardari would have Kayani’s and Pasha’s. And U.S. taxpayer-funded aid would flow unabated under the Kerry-Lugar bill in which Haqqani had pushed so hard to include civilian-supremacy language as a sine qua non.
Not a bad plan. Really, not a bad plan.
Unfortunately, plans leave footprints. Consider that Operation Neptune Spear was approved by President Obama at 8:20 a.m. on April 29. After waiting one day for bad weather, the operation commenced. Ask Haqqani where he was during those fateful days prior to, and on the day of, the bin Laden raid. Answer: London. Coincidentally, he would have left at just about the same time Obama gave the green light. Why? Whom did he meet? What did he discuss with his British hosts? Why was he back for another round of meetings with the same people—Sir David Richards, chief of the Defense Staff (Admiral Mullen’s British equivalent), and Tobias Ellwood, parliamentary private secretary to the defense secretary—a week later? For what were characterized as private visits, Haqqani’s appointment agenda was pretty hefty—an agenda that only one man knew about beforehand: Asif Ali Zardari.
What private matter could be so important that it required Pakistan’s eyes and ears in America to be away from his desk on the very day his host country was about to execute one of the most daring military missions in history to kill the world’s most-wanted terrorist on Pakistani soil? Was Haqqani in London so he could plausibly deny having any knowledge of the bin Laden raid on the day it occurred, having just conveyed Zardari’s approval for the raid to the Obama national-security team? Or was he tasked with informing Pakistan’s key allies to keep everyone in the loop—playing the role of a back channel within his own government?
Haqqani made just one critical mistake—seconding me into his scheme. I dislike the brinksmanship and heavy-handed role that Pakistan’s military and intelligence organizations have played throughout the nation’s history, and have said so over and over again. Democracy cannot exist in a police state managed by a thuggish intelligence agency. But I dislike even more feudal civilian cabals that feign love for democracy only to orchestrate their grandiose schemes on important security issues through abuses of power that simply cannot be tolerated in an open society.
Pakistan is much stronger as a result of the disclosures that have arisen after the memorandum became the unintended focus of global media attention. Its frenetic, even chaotic media did their jobs well. Some suffered threats. Yet Pakistani reporters toughed it out. They saw a smokescreen and decided to disperse it. It is this hunger for transparency that the people of Pakistan will now use to choose leaders who serve only the people, not themselves.
Pakistan’s military men may not allow civilian supremacy just yet, but a serious transition seems to be underway to at least make civilian institutions strong enough to coexist on an even footing with the Army in the intermediate term. One day, those civilian institutions may indeed be strong enough to protect Pakistan’s truest national interests: not Kashmir, Afghanistan, and nuclear bombs, but the availability of education, the expansion of trade ties, and the provision of energy to a frustrated nation eager to find prosperity.