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Former Ambassador to Pakistan Milam: “I had a pretty good idea of what failed states look like, and it was not one.”

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Former Ambassador to Pakistan Milam: “I had a pretty good idea of what failed states look like, and it was not one.”"

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During Friday’s presidential debate, John McCain tried repeatedly to portray Barack Obama as an inexperienced empty suit who didn’t “understand” major issues. One such issue which, according to McCain, Obama didn’t understand was the 1999 coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power in Pakistan. According to McCain, Pakistan was a failed state in 1999. But William Milan, US Ambassador to Pakistan at the time of the coup, told me via email that it’s McCain who doesn’t understand. “Having come to Pakistan from Liberia a year before the takeover,” he told me “I had a pretty good idea of what failed states look like, and it was not one.”

Speaking at the debate, McCain made the very strong claim that “everybody who was around” knew that Pakistan was a failed state, and that disagreement on this point wasn’t merely a matter of opinion. “I don’t think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power,” he said “everybody who was around then, and had been there, and knew about it knew that it was a failed state.”

I asked Ambassador Milam about that as he was certainly “around then” and “had been there” and so I figured he’d be in a position to know. His response, in full:

There are a number of interesting books, including a forthcoming one by me, that cover the 1999 coup by the Musharraf-led army. You might want to look at those already published by Steve Cohen, Hasan Abbas, Hussain Haqqani (long before he became the present Pakistani Ambassador), and especially Ian Talbot’s updated history of Pakistan.

I think that all of them would agree that, while there were a lot of things wrong in Pakistan during the years leading up to the 1999
military takeover, Pakistan was not a failed state as we normally define such states. I am on record as stating publicly that, having come to Pakistan from Liberia a year before the takeover, I had a pretty good idea of what failed states look like, and it was not one.

This leaves McCain’s attacks looking more than a little threadbare.

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