The impact of the Davis affair - Shafqat Mahmood - Friday, February 11, 2011

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The American Embassy in Islamabad and the Pakistan Foreign Office have declared that relations between the two countries are strong. This is a sure sign that they are not. Diplomacy and doublespeak often go together.

The ‘Raymond Davis’ affair – the name in inverted commas because who knows what his real identity is – has blindsided both governments. It is literally a bolt from the blue and most unwelcome for all concerned. There were enough issues to sort out already. This imbroglio has made it more difficult.

Both parties have good reasons to take a stand although no one is particularly happy about it. Events are just forcing them in a direction they cannot avoid. The Americans have to stand by their undercover operative to avoid a negative impact on others assigned similar missions. The Pakistanis have to worry about a political fallout that could be severely damaging.

Whether ‘Raymond Davis’ has diplomatic immunity would now be determined by the Lahore High Court but there is little doubt that he was on an undercover assignment. This by itself is not unusual; most countries have similar operatives. His exposure and involvement in the killings has exposed a schism that has been brewing for some time between the two countries.

The Americans are deeply suspicious about the cooperation that the Pakistani intelligence agencies have been extending in the campaign against Al Qaeda and other extremist organisations. They often accuse them of duplicity through leaked stories in the American media that suggest shadowy links between for example, the ISI and radical groups.

The Pakistanis deny this vehemently and ask for proof that the Americans have been unable to provide. They are also deeply offended by the cases initiated against the DG ISI in American courts. This development and the unending stream of allegations against the ISI are seen as a pressure tactic employed to put the organisation on the defensive.

This uneasy relationship between the intelligence agencies of the two countries prompted the Americans to seek an increase in their undercover personnel in Pakistan. It was resisted and for a long time visa applications put up by the American government were not approved.

This led to a standoff with the Americans claiming that they cannot provide aid unless they have people in place to monitor it. The message was clear; allow our people to come in or money will not flow. The Pakistani government finally caved in and since then there has been a surge in American footprint on the ground.

The ‘Raymond Davis’ episode was waiting to happen. With a sizeable number of American undercover operatives moving freely in the country, problems were bound to occur. It started at security checkpoints where they would refuse to identify themselves or get their vehicles searched. There were a number of standoffs.

People like Raymond Davis, operating alone, were particularly vulnerable to a serious incident. One, an unaccompanied white person would attract attention, not only of curious passersby, but also of petty criminals wanting an easy score. This could have been the reason Mr Davis was accosted in Lahore.

Secondly, someone on an undercover assignment and all by himself has greater propensity to feel paranoid. Trained to react instinctively to real or perceived danger, he or she is more likely to reach for a gun under pressure, as compared to an ordinary tourist. The surprise is not that the Davis incident happened; more that other such incidents have not occurred.

How far will this go and how would it affect Pak-US relations? After the Lahore High Court has taken cognizance of the matter, there is no way that the provincial or the federal government can just release Mr Davis. American pressure for his instant release demonstrates a degree of contempt for Pakistani institutions. Maybe, the political wing in the embassy, which should have better reading of the situation, can advise everyone that the government cannot dictate to the judiciary.

It seems to me that the federal government is veering toward granting him diplomatic immunity. But, the problem is that if the court considers the reasoning unsatisfactory, there is not much that the government will be able to do.

If such an eventuality does occur, it would be, for PPP government, the worst of both worlds; getting negative political fallout without actually securing Davis’ release. It needs to have a solid immunity case before it even considers going to court. Since national security is involved, it would be wise to seek a preliminary hearing in camera to test the waters

The Punjab government is sitting pretty because it has basically gone by the book. Since the federal government dithered about the immunity question, there was little choice for it but to register a case and keep Mr Davis in custody. It has provided consular access but has continued with the investigation. On a political plane, the PML N and Mr Shahbaz Sharif have nothing to lose. The Americans may not think too much of them, but a strong and principled stand plays well on the Pakistani street.

Will this episode affect Pak-US relations? It is obvious that the American government is very keen on Mr Davis’ speedy release. With every passing day, more details of his activities are emerging that do not reflect well on the US in the public eye. But, a quick release seems unlikely. Whatever determination is made by the foreign office will have to be adjudicated in court. This could take time.

There is also the unresolved matter of the unfortunate bystander crushed by the consulate vehicle. This may also fall within the ambit of diplomatic immunity but so far no information has been provided by the American government. It remains a sticking point until it is resolved.

Assuming that there is no quick solution, where would Pak-US relations stand? The simple fact is that both countries need each other pretty desperately. Pared down to the bare minimum, US needs the transit facilities to its troops in Afghanistan that cannot be easily replicated. It also needs Pakistan’s cooperation to make progress in the war in Afghanistan. Lastly, it worries about militancy in Pakistan and would like to remain engaged.

The Pakistani government is desperately short of money and needs every bit it can get from the US, from its European allies, from the IMF and other multilateral institutions. The key to all this assistance lies in the hands of the United States. Someone correctly remarked that sovereignty is not only of territory but of being able to pay one’s bills. The Pakistani government is in the sad state of not being able to do so.

Thus, in case of a serious standoff both countries will have a lot to lose. But then, the US is a superpower and has more options. Pakistan’s desperate economic straits make it more vulnerable. Even so, in the event of such a standoff, neither side will emerge a winner. It would be best for the US to understand the imperatives of the Davis case and wait patiently for a resolution.


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