Pakistan names new envoy to US in wake of scandal

November 23, 2011 - 8:20 AM
Pakistan Envoy Scandal

FILE - In this March 31, 2008 file photo, Pakistan's former Information Minister Sherry Rehman is seen in her office in Islamabad, Pakistan. Pakistan has appointed Sherry Rehman as new ambassador to the United States on Wednesday Nov. 23, 2011 replacing Husain Haqqani, who resigned Tuesday amid allegations he wrote a memo to Washington asking for its help in reining in the military. (AP Photo, file)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan appointed a democracy activist who has faced militant death threats as its new ambassador to the United States on Wednesday, moving quickly to replace the old envoy who resigned after upsetting the country's powerful military in a scandal dubbed "memo-gate."

Sherry Rehman will likely be well-received in Washington, though she will have a tough task representing Pakistan amid widespread suspicion in the U.S. that nuclear-armed Pakistan is not a sincere ally in the fight against Islamist extremists.

"We all have to forge a progressive, dynamic Pakistan out of the ashes that are often left to us by the fire of terrorism, by the fire of extremism," Rehman said during a speech Wednesday.

The 50-year-old former information minister is an important and respected player in Pakistan's ruling party and a vocal proponent of civilian supremacy in the country. She resigned her post in March 2009 amid controversy over whether President Asif Ali Zardari had ordered cable operators to block a private TV channel that had been critical of him — an allegation he denied.

The appointment of Rehman, a former journalist who has been a strong proponent of media freedom, was surprising to some observers, who had presumed the army, having ousted the last ambassador, would try to force its own candidate on the weak government.

Rehman's appointment "suggests that the military has failed to assume complete control of Pak-US relations," Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director for Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter.

She was close to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and was riding in the same motorcade when she was killed by militants in 2007. Rehman was unharmed.

She has spoken out against Islamist militancy and the country's blasphemy law, which is used to persecute Christians. Police warned her that she could be targeted by extremists, and she was under heavy guard for some time.

Rehman currently heads the Jinnah Institute, an organization she founded to "invest in policies that promote fundamental rights, tolerance and pluralism."

She is seen as quite a glamorous figure in Pakistan and is a lover of art, literature and fashion. She once co-authored a book titled "Kashmiri Shawl: From Jamavar to Paisely."

Ambassador Husain Haqqani resigned from the post late Tuesday amid allegations he engineered a memo to Washington asking for its help in reining in the military in exchange for a raft of pro-American policies. He has denied any connection to the memo.

Haqqani was summoned to Pakistan by the army after the scandal broke a few days back. He had made no secret of his desire to try and wrest some of the power in Pakistan from the army to the civilian government, which is nominally in charge, earning him the distrust of the army establishment.

On Wednesday, he tweeted: "Ah! To wake up in my motherland, without the burden of conducting Pakistan's most difficult external relationship."

Haqqani later met with Rehman on Wednesday to discuss her new job, the former ambassador said on Twitter, calling her a "dedicated democrat" and wishing her the best.

Rehman also praised Haqqani, telling reporters that he had served his country well.

"He has gracefully tendered his resignation because he doesn't want to tarnish the country's image just because he became controversial," said Rehman. "But this doesn't mean he has admitted any involvement" in the memo scandal, she said.

Rehman's new 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 heavily on U.S. aid and diplomatic support.

Relations between the two countries have soured badly over the last year, especially over the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town, which was carried out without informing Islamabad.

"She is an excellent nomination because she is highly regarded in Pakistan's intellectual and political circles, and I think even in those circles close to the military establishment," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

"She has courage and she has a vision of a progressive, liberal, democratic Pakistan, and she has worked for that," he added.

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Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Zarar Khan contributed to this report.