For years, ‘Memogate’ was associated with a controversy over documents that spoke of former US President George W Bush’s allegedly tardy service in the Air National Guard in 1972-73.
But in late 2011, the term came to refer to a confidential memorandum addressed to Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which the Pakistani government reportedly asked the Obama administration in the United States to help avert a takeover by the Pakistani military, following the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.
It all began with Pakistani-origin American businessman Mansoor Ijaz stating in an editorial in British newspaper The Financial Times in October 2011 that “a Pakistani official stationed in the United States” had asked him to deliver the memo, on behalf of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
He wrote: “The embarrassment of bin Laden being found on Pakistani soil had humiliated Mr Zardari’s weak civilian government to such an extent that the president feared a military takeover was imminent.”
It was immediately speculated that this official was then Pakistan Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani. In a flurry of damage control action, Haqqani was summoned to Pakistan, and replaced as Ambassador by Sherry Rehman. The Supreme Court of Pakistan is now conducting an inquiry into the scandal, as is a Parliamentary panel.
Why was the Pakistani Government Worried?
The raid on the Abbottabad hideout on May 2, 2011, which killed Osama bin Laden, caused a low point in US-Pakistan trust. The operation, conducted by US Navy SEALs without the involvement — and knowledge — of the Pakistani government was heavily criticised as being a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Pakistani government was at the receiving end for allowing an ally to conduct such a raid, and also for not being able to find Osama bin Laden in all the time he had been hiding in the country. President Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, and Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani held a meeting to discuss the situation. According to Ijaz, the memo was written by Haqqani at the behest of Zardari within days of the meeting.
How Was the Memo Drafted?
Mansoor Ijaz claimed Haqqani sent him a text via BlackBerry on May 9 last year, asking him to call him at a hotel in London. Ijaz was then asked to deliver a verbal request for help to Admiral Mullen, he said, the contents of which were dictated by Haqqani. However, the US officials he spoke to insisted on putting the proposal down on paper, whereupon Haqqani dictated the memo. Ijaz said he had emailed a draft copy to the Ambassador for proofreading. After Haqqani approved the contents, it was supposedly delivered to Admiral Mullen through former US National Security Advisor James L Jones, after Jones was assured that the memo had Zardari’s approval.
What Did the Memo Say?
The memo speaks of the Pakistani government’s concern that the Pakistani Army and its rogue intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), may stage a military coup and overthrow the democratically elected government, and asks the US for help to counter such an occurrence.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, which published the contents of the memo on its website, the memo asked the US to send a “strong, urgent and direct message to General Kayani and General Pasha”, telling them to abandon plans to bring down the civilian government.
It put the onus of negotiating with Kayani on the US, and in return, promised incentives such as:
• ;A tribunal would be set up to conduct an inquiry into allegations that Pakistani military leaders had protected and helped Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders; independent investigators chosen by the US would be on the panel.
• ;A new national security apparatus would be set up, which would draft procedures to either hand over terrorist leaders remaining in Pakistan “including Ayman Al Zawahiri, Mullah Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani” or give the US “carte blanche” to conduct operations to capture and kill them in Pakistan, despite the “political risks”. This team would also remove ‘Section S’ of the ISI, which is believed to have close ties with terrorist networks.
• ;The Pakistani government would work with the US on an “acceptable framework of discipline for the nuclear programme”, and Pakistan’s “nuclear assets” would be brought “under a more verifiable, transparent regime”. This would supposedly counter the military-intelligence establishment’s fears that the US could violate Pakistan’s air space to destroy their nuclear assets.
• ;The Pakistani government would cooperate in bringing “all perpetrators of Pakistani origin to account for the 2008 Mumbai attacks”, and even hand over those individuals against whom there was “sufficient” evidence of guilt to India.
How Did the Establishment React?
Admiral Mullen first said he knew nothing about the memo, and the Pentagon said Mullen had never communicated with Ijaz. Later, Mullen said he knew of the memo but didn’t think it important. There was speculation in both Pakistani and international media that the denial was made at Haqqani’s request. The issue was complicated by the fact that there was no seal or signature on the memo, and all the evidence that the world had to go on was leaked BlackBerry communication between Haqqani and Ijaz.
Haqqani denied the existence of the memo, but offered to resign over the controversy. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan was the first to claim the author of the memo was Haqqani, a fact backed by Ijaz later. Haqqani continued to deny his involvement, but then the leaked text messages were a threat to his credibility, and he left for Pakistan to discuss the issue with the government.
When Foreign Policy published the contents of the memo, and other media houses followed suit, President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Director General of ISI Ahmad Shuja Pasha, and Ambassador Haqqani called an official meeting. Following this, Haqqani resigned and was replaced by Sherry Rehman. Zardari called Memogate a “conspiracy” and said he would not have used intermediaries to contact his US counterpart Barack Obama even if he had decided to moot the proposal in the memo.
US spokesmen, in bumbling responses to pointed questions by the media, stuck to stock diplomatic responses and refused to comment on the issue.
There were calls by the Opposition for a court investigation, but the Pakistani government insisted that this was unnecessary and that Parliament would look into the matter.
However, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court by a group of opposition politicians, which included former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif. Following this, the case began to be heard on December 19, and a three-judge commission was set up on January 2 by the Supreme Court of Pakistan to look into the scandal.
Immediately, Haqqani’s lawyer Asma Jahangir stepped down as his counsel, saying she had no faith in the judicial commission. But Haqqani was set to appear before the commission, and to continue pursuing his case in the Supreme Court.
In an interview with Geo News channel on January 7, Zardari — who has refused to give a statement to the Supreme Court about Memogate — said he considers the Parliamentary panel’s decision “sovereign”, hinting that he didn’t particularly care what the judicial commission said.
However, he insisted that there was no fight with the Army or the judiciary, and that the struggles were part of a process of “evolution”.
The commission is expected to submit a report in early February. And going by reports, it isn’t having an easy time of getting the main actors in the scandal to cooperate. On January 9, Haqqani’s lawyer refused to submit BlackBerry data to the commission, saying it was up to the government to provide that. There are also difficulties involved in recording a statement from Ijaz, who is not a Pakistani national.