Thus began a weird diplomatic intrigue that led last week to the downfall of Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s suave ambassador to Washington, and is still making waves in Islamabad. Ijaz, 50, a Pakistani American who grew up in rural Virginia, is at the center of the squall, a place the self-described “citizen diplomat” has landed before.
Rather than sailing, Ijaz says, he immediately phoned Haqqani, who’d sent the message, and spent the next several hours working back-channel Washington contacts at the ambassador’s request. He and Haqqani, who have known each other for years, exchanged messages using what Ijaz says were coded phrases — including “the three stooges” and “a sledgehammer with a golden handle.”
Why the secret-squirrel stuff? Because, by Ijaz’s account, Haqqani and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari were trying to prevent a coup by the country’s generals in the days after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. This involved getting a single-page, unsigned memo — seeking U.S. help to neuter Pakistan’s army and spy service — to the Pentagon.
Ijaz is the bluff character behind the scandal dubbed “Memogate” by the Pakistani media. His version of events is vehemently disputed by Haqqani, whose role in the affair is now the subject of inquiries by Pakistan’s Parliament and Supreme Court. On Thursday, the court barred Haqqani from leaving Pakistan while it conducts a three-week investigation.
The matter would not have morphed into another “gate” had Ijaz not penned a Financial Times column in October calling for a clampdown on Pakistan’s jihadi-coddling spy service. Therein, he disclosed the existence of the memo and said it was delivered on the instructions of a “senior Pakistani diplomat.” Though the op-ed did not specifically name Haqqani, the connection was fairly obvious to insiders.
Critics call Ijaz an attention-craving Walter Mitty type, prone to exaggerating his importance in this and other murky international negotiations he has undertaken since the mid-1990s. But he calls himself a force for good, working to expose corrupt regimes, fight terrorism and uplift the oppressed, particularly in Muslim countries.
“I am driven by a sense of injustice,” he declares. “I believe I can change the world. . . . I fundamentally believe that my words, my actions, my interventions [in foreign affairs] have changed the course of history.”
Maybe so, but the only thing certain in Memogate is that the once warm and breezy relationship between Haqqani and Ijaz, two like-minded advocates for democracy in Pakistan, has hit an iceberg.
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The use of private conduits such as Ijaz is not unusual: Such people can prove useful to governments in making unofficial overtures to other governments. The memo, addressed to Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Zardari was willing to install a “new national security team” that would root out terrorists, including other al-Qaeda members sheltered by the Pakistani military. The document reached Mullen by way of Ijaz’s friend James L. Jones, the retired Marine general and former national security adviser.