A US citizen stirs up Pakistani 'memo-gate'

Mansoor Ijaz, a 'citizen diplomat,' alleges Pakistani leaders knew of the Osama bin Laden raid ahead of time. The media frenzy in Pakistan over 'memo-gate' highlights the fragility of the government. 

Pakistani former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif leaves the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan on Thursday. A Pakistani parliamentarian says the Supreme Court has barred the country's former envoy to the US from leaving, while a commission investigates his role in a memo scandal that led to his resignation. Former Ambassador Husain Haqqani has been accused of crafting a memo asking the US for help in reining in Pakistan's military, following the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.

A private American citizen has accused Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and a former top diplomat of being aware in advance of the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.

The affair has injected fresh fuel to a scandal dubbed “memo-gate” by the Pakistani media, which has imperiled the US-backed civilian government and has been compared by the country’s supreme court to the Watergate scandal.

The spectacular – and unproven – allegations come from Mansoor Ijaz, an American of Pakistani origin who calls himself a “citizen diplomat.” The traction he has gotten in Pakistan’s discourse highlights the fragility of the current government and the familiar possibility that elections could be short-circuited by backroom intrigues.

On Saturday, Mr. Ijaz wrote in Newsweek: “In my opinion … Zardari and [Husain] Haqqani [Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US], both knew the US was going to launch a stealth mission to eliminate bin Laden that would violate Pakistan’s sovereignty,” adding that the civilian government planned to use the resulting outrage to force out the country’s top general and spy chief.

In an earlier op-ed written in the Financial Times in October, Ijaz had alleged that a “senior Pakistani diplomat” – whom he later named as Mr. Haqqani – had worked with him to seek US help in preventing a military coup inside Pakistan in exchange for a series of key pro-US promises by the Pakistani government. Haqqani denied the allegations, which forced him out of his job and placed him before a top-level government probe. Haqqani’s movements have also been restrained by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

On Friday, Pakistan’s main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, petitioned the Supreme Court to summon President Zardari, spy chief Gen. Shuja Pasha, and Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, as well as Haqqani.

Creating a political crisis?

Some Pakistan observers are raising questions about Ijaz and why he has turned against the very institution he claims to have supported over the years through his journalism and contacts in the US government.

A highly placed diplomatic source has now hit back, telling the Monitor: “Some elements are now keeping this story alive. Ijaz and his backers want to create a political crisis.”

On Saturday, White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told reporters: “There is no truth to the reports that Ambassador Haqqani or President Zardari had advance knowledge of the May 2 Abbottabad operation,” while Haqqani himself has threatened to sue for libel.

Given the secrecy surrounding the operation, security analysts deem such intelligence-sharing highly unlikely.  That hasn’t prevented Pakistan’s media, increasingly hostile to President Zardari, from giving the allegations blanket coverage.

Still, Ijaz appears keen to continue his very public feud. Ijaz has repeatedly stated his sole motivation for talking to the media is to correct the record in light of denials of the memo’s existence by Pakistan’s government. Others aren’t so sure.

“I think if there’s one thing that’s clear in this saga is that Mansoor Ijaz loves the limelight. He will do anything to remain in it,” says Cyril Almeida, a political columnist with leading  Pakistani English-daily Dawn.

A major Democratic contributor

Ijaz, who grew up in rural Virginia, is a self-described “citizen diplomat.” A major contributor to the Democratic party during the 1990s, he has previously claimed to have been involved in, among other things, negotiations between the governments of the US and Sudan for the extradition of Osama bin Laden in 1996, in which he claimed former President Clinton missed a chance to nab the terror chief. The 9/11 commission later found “no reliable evidence” to support the claim that such a deportation to the US was in the offing.

During the Iraq war, Ijaz strongly endorsed the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and in 2006 claimed that Iran had already acquired nuclear weapons. More recently, he has written strongly against Pakistan’s military establishment. In 2009, he wrote in a Monitor op-ed that if Pakistan fails to curb extremists, it would be appropriate if “America walks out and previews its contingency plan for securing Pakistan's nuclear weapons on the front page of The New York Times.”

“He’s been against Pakistan’s military and the ISI [Inter Services Intelligence] up until memo-gate. Why would someone who has campaigned for the ISI to be declared a terrorist organization accept an invitation to meet the ISI Chief in London?” says the diplomatic source, referring to a meeting between Gen. Shuja Pasha and Ijaz shortly after memo-gate broke, that was also reported in Newsweek Pakistan.

For Almeida, the columnist, the affair says more about the media environment in Pakistan, where a successful libel prosecution has not taken place since 1957, and the public’s hostility to the present government, than anything else.

“A man comes out and makes an allegation and suddenly people say ‘Now we know the truth about May 2,’” he says. “He’s coming out and his analysis is being treated as gospel-truth. It’s a joke, and the problem is here in the Pakistani media and they are not treating it as they should be.”

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