ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's envoy to Washington lost a battle with the country's powerful generals to keep his job Tuesday over allegations he wrote a memo seeking U.S. help in stopping a supposed coup in the aftermath of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The resignation of Hussain Haqqani highlighted tensions between the country's nominal civilian government and the army, which has ruled Pakistan for most of its history.
Haqqani, a key ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, was well regarded by Obama administration officials in Washington, where many lawmakers view Pakistan with suspicion if not hostility.
Although Haqqani said he hoped his stepping down would end the scandal – which Pakistanis have called "memogate" – speculation remained over whether it could yet engulf Zardari. The unpopular leader has faced questions over whether he also knew about the mysterious memo, which right-wing, pro-army media outlets have described as treasonous.
Haqqani said he stood by earlier denials he had nothing to do with the letter, which was sent soon after the bin Laden raid to then-U.S. military chief Adm. Mike Mullen. The envoy and his supporters have alleged the memo was a hoax cooked up by the military establishment to get rid of him and weaken the Zardari government and democratic institutions – explosive charges in a country that has seen at least three military coups.
The memo was made public last week by a Pakistani American businessman who claimed to have received it from Haqqani and, following his instructions, passed it to Mullen through an intermediary. He claimed that Haqqani assured him that Zardari had approved the memo.
The Pakistani government initially denied the existence of the memo, as did Mullen's spokesman. But later the spokesman said Mullen had received it but considered it unreliable and ignored it.
The memo accuses army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani of plotting to bring down the government in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid, which most Pakistanis considered a humiliating violation of their sovereignty by U.S. Navy SEALs. It asks Mullen for his "direct intervention" with Kayani to prevent a coup.
In return, it promises help in installing a "new security team" in Islamabad that would be friendly to Washington. It also mentions policies likely to please the Obama administration but certain to enrage the army, which sets foreign policy and views itself as the sole protector of the country's sovereignty.
The memo promises the government will allow the U.S. to propose names of officials to investigate how bin Laden was able to live undetected in an army town not far from Pakistan's version of West Point, facilitate American attempts to target militants like al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri and Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar, and allow the U.S. greater oversight of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
Haqqani, who offered to resign last week when the scandal broke, returned to Pakistan over the weekend to face questioning by the army and the intelligence chiefs. He told close associates he would resign if his tenure became too much of a drag on the civilian government, but was fighting to the end to keep his job.
"I have resigned to bring closure to this meaningless controversy threatening our fledgling democracy," he said in a statement. "It was an artificial crisis over an insignificant memo written by a self-centered businessman."
A statement from the prime minister's office said an investigation into the memogate scandal would be conducted "at an appropriate level" and "carried out fairly, objectively and without bias."
The businessman who allegedly received the memo from Haqqani, Mansoor Ijaz, has led a high-profile media campaign attacking the ambassador. He said Sunday that Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, the head of Pakistan's main intelligence agency, flew to London to meet with him last month. Ijaz said he provided Pasha with Blackberry and computer records pertaining to the memo and implicating Haqqani. Both the memo and the Blackberry records were leaked to the media.
The conversations show Haqqani allegedly discussing the wording of the memo with Ijaz and telling him to go ahead.
"Ball is in play now. Make sure you have protected your flanks," Ijaz allegedly tells Haqqani after handing over the memo.
Ijaz has a history of making claims to be well connected with U.S. politicians. Under the Clinton administration, he said U.S. officials told him Sudan was willing to turn over then-fugitive bin Laden, who was taking refuge there. Ijaz said Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger rejected the deal because he was unwilling to do business with Sudan – a claim that Berger immediately denied.
It was not immediately known who would replace Haqqani, who has no family connection to the Haqqani militant network that is carrying out high-profile bombings in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Of particular importance will be whether the next ambassador is perceived to answer to the government or to the army.
U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Tuesday that Haqqani "has been a very close partner, of course, of the United States and we've appreciated the work we have done with him. But at the same time, we are sure that we'll be able to work with whoever the next Pakistani ambassador is as well."
The diplomatic post is a crucial one for both nations. Washington wants to work with Pakistan to defeat al-Qaida and negotiate a way out of the Afghan war. Islamabad relies on U.S. aid and diplomatic support.
Relations between the two countries have soured badly over the last year, especially over the bin Laden raid, which the U.S. carried out without informing Pakistan in advance. With many American lawmakers calling for an end to U.S. aid, Haqqani was outspoken in support of continued engagement.
When Mullen blamed Pakistan for aiding the Haqqani militant network after its spectacular attack against the U.S. embassy in Kabul over the summer, the ambassador went into overdrive, working the phones and persuading U.S. officials to meet him at his office, or at the Army Navy Club near the White House – discreet conversations that helped keep some forms of military cooperation moving forward.
Haqqani is also a visiting scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. He is the author of a respected book on the army and Islam in Pakistan, in which he argues against a military role in the country.
"He was an extremely effective interlocutor," said Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council. "It will be difficult to find someone with his ability to translate difficult situations into a workable relationship."
Christine Fair, assistant professor at Georgetown University, said she didn't expect the resignation would lead to a further downturn in U.S.-Pakistan ties, noting that both countries were continuing with cooperation on targeting al-Qaida and on drone strikes in the Afghan border area.
"So we're still getting from them what we need in terms of a bare minimum," Fair said. "It would be surprising if a new ambassador would try to sabotage that ... but you can't rule it out."
Associated Press writers Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad and Kimberly Dozier and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.