Pakistan signals new era in relations with US
'Memogate' controversy is thought to be behind the removal of the long-time ambassador
Published 24/11/2011 | 06:03
The Pakistani government in Islamabad said that its long-serving ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, who resigned on Tuesday, is to be replaced by Sherry Rehman, a firebrand campaigner for human rights.
Ms Rehman, 50, is a former journalist, Information Minister under President Ali Asif Zardari and current member of the National Assembly. She briefly went into hiding this year after she campaigned to repeal blasphemy laws that bring the death penalty on those found guilty of insulting Mohamed. She left the government in 2009 in protest at efforts to curb the freedom of the press.
Her appointment comes at a time of deep tension between the United States and Pakistan. It is also the result of swirling, but unproven, allegations that, after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Mr Haqqani allegedly authored a secret memo to the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, Admiral Mike Mullen, asking for help from him in blocking the Pakistani military from staging a putative coup.
Mr Haqqani, who had served in Washington since 2008 and was considered by some in Pakistan as an apologist for US policies, stepped down late on Tuesday. "I have resigned to bring closure to this meaningless controversy threatening our fledgling democracy," he said.
While President Zardari may have been pressured by the military to accept the resignation, there was surprise at the choice of Ms Rehman to replace him. She has limited experience of the problems with the US – the Afghan War and the presence of Taliban, al-Qa'ida and allied groups inside Pakistan – and is not considered especially appreciated by the country's generals.
Nonetheless, she has a think tank in Pakistan, the Jinnah Institute, which co-authored an extensive report on Afghanistan that underlined the divergent interests of the US and Pakistan there. "I will perform my duties and responsibilities to further strengthen the relationship with the US while safeguarding the interests of Pakistan, its dignity and sovereignty," she said in a statement.
For his part, Mr Haqqani returns to a tricky future in Pakistan, depending on the outcome of the investigation into so-called "memo- gate". The missive to Admiral Mullen allegedly pleaded for US help to curb the military and its threat to civilian government in Pakistan in return for a pledge that Islamabad would do more to support US interests in the region.
Mr Haqqani insists that he never sent any such memo to anyone in the US administration. A former spokesman to Admiral Mullen has said that while a memo was received its provenance was never established as it was unsigned and it was therefore never taken seriously.
Ms Rehman has close ties to the US, stemming in part from spending some years studying politics and economics here in the 1980s. She will, however, face a delicate challenge developing a working relationship with the US administration at a time when the US is so deeply unpopular at home and when many in Washington have grown suspicious of Pakistan and its motives.