Thursday, February 17, 2011

PAKISTAN and the Strange Case of Raymond Davis

A shadowy US official, jailed in Lahore, embodies the tensions in US-Pakistani relations

Not many people can claim to have had a sitting US Senator fly half-way across the world to bail them out of prison, but Raymond Davis can.

Before he shot dead two men allegedly trying to rob him at gunpoint in Lahore on Jan. 27, no one had ever heard of the former US Special Forces soldier turned consular officer. Today, however, Davis has become the most visible embodiment of the tensions and contradictions that have come to characterise US-Pakistan relations.

Despite optimism on the part of US Sen. John Kerry that he could bring Davis home with him, a Pakistani court stated on Feb. 17 that it would delay a decision on Davis’s diplomatic immunity until Mar. 14. Kerry told reporters Davis would be subject to a criminal investigation upon his return to the US.

The US is obviously putting enormous pressure on Islamabad for Davis’s release. But the case has struck a nerve across Pakistani society. In contrast to the ongoing drone strikes in the tribal areas, the consequences of which remain largely remote and abstract, Davis has given a name, a face, and a narrative to the sense of humiliation that many Pakistanis feel as a result of US policy in the country.

Why, many in Pakistan are asking, was an American civilian driving around Lahore with a loaded Glock 9mm pistol in his car? And if he is, as Washington is claiming, a mere "consular officer," then why is there such secrecy surrounding the precise nature of his duties?

Such questions resonate loudly in the echo chamber of local media, which regularly conflates fact, fiction and conspiracy theory. More importantly, they shine a bright light on what many Pakistanis see as the fundamental inequality in the bilateral relationship between Washington, DC and Islamabad.

The prevailing view is that Davis is not a diplomat at all but rather a private security contractor exploiting his official status to undermine Pakistani sovereignty. Such fears are not new. In 2009, for example, the presence of employees of Blackwater (now called Xe Services) became a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment. At the time, this paranoia resulted in frenzied reporting by local media of alleged Blackwater bases in the capital and front-page stories accusing foreign journalists and officials of being spies and Blackwater operatives.

The public outcry from Davis’s case has created a wedge that threatens to drive the two countries – nominal allies at best – even further apart. Islamabad was under immense public pressure to prosecute Davis in Pakistan. But the US stated that Davis held diplomatic immunity and demanded his release.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s administration was conflicted. At the outset, the country’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi lost his job for refusing to certify Davis’s status as a diplomat, though other officials have since done so. Zardari is loath to be seen on the wrong side of this issue. Having seemingly acquiesced to US demands for Davis’s release, he now faces the risk of heightened political opposition and intensified public antipathy towards his ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Following his capitulation to the religious right on the issue of repealing the country’s anti-blasphemy law, further pandering to public opinion came at a high price: his upcoming state visit to Washington next month, and possibly the five-year, US$7.5 billion, civilian aid program.

The calculus from Washington’s perspective is no less fraught. The Obama administration has invested heavily in bolstering Pakistan’s civilian government. Although reluctant to be seen as publicly undermining the Zardari administration on this issue, there is a risk that US pressure on Islamabad has done nothing to enhance stability, and could be exacerbating civil-military tensions. On the other hand, diplomatic immunity is a centuries-old tenet of international law. Abandoning it in the hope of gaining short-term political advantage would have been imprudent and set a dangerous precedent for US diplomats all over the world.

Though Davis’s release is probable, the situation remains undoubtedly tense, and there could yet be downstream consequences. Militant groups have vowed to carry out retaliatory attacks, and the religious right has warned of protests. But, Davis is unlikely to be the trigger for any fundamental deterioration in US-Pakistan relations.. Indeed, his case represents but one of many thorny issues that will continue to bedevil ties between the two countries.

On the Pakistani side, mistrust and suspicion of US activities, exacerbated by regular drone strikes and the shadowy role of private security contractors, will remain high. Similarly, many in the Obama administration will still harbour doubts about the reliability of both Pakistan’s civil and military establishments, and the extent to which Islamabad is committed to the partnership. In the strange case of Raymond Davis, the shots he fired in Lahore a month ago will continue to echo between Islamabad and Washington.

ByUrmila Venugopalan freelance writer Asia Sentinel

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