Pakistan-US relations: Who will blink first

Written by: Ani
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New Delhi, Feb.14 (ANI): The case of US operative, Raymond Davis, has mushroomed beyond the dramatis persona involved. From being a case of diplomatic immunity and self-defense it has snowballed into a confrontation between the US and Pakistan with ramifications for their future relationship and much else.

What is known about the event has been in the public domain since January 27 and does not need repetition here. What does bear reiteration is the mystery surrounding the event.

From the real name of Raymond Davis, where was he based, what was he doing, did he have diplomatic status to who were the Pakistanis, were they dacoits or intelligence minders of Davis, are there deficiencies in the FIR that may allow Davis to be freed, has Pakistan permitted US diplomats to carry weapons, was the weapon with Davis licensed etc, are all questions being asked repeatedly but for which no authentic reply has been forthcoming, either from the US or from Pakistan.

The key question is whether or not Davis enjoyed diplomatic immunity on January 27. If he did have diplomatic status on Jan 27, then as per the Vienna Convention, he would walk free.

However, the confusion on what should have been a clear cut and simple determination has degenerated into suspicions about convoluted efforts to give him retrospective diplomatic status. Declaring him a diplomat two weeks after the event would give the impression that this was done under US pressure and be disastrous.

The US has shifted its stand from Davis being a Lahore-based consular officer to his being a diplomat in Islamabad and further indicating that Davis is not even his real name.

Davis himself claimed in the police station that he was a 'consultant' with the Regional Affairs Office of the US consulate in Lahore.

On the Pakistani side, the lack of understanding of the issues involved by the Lahore Police, failure of the federal government to clearly state his status right at the outset, the tension and mistrust between the PMLN-led Punjab and the PPP-led federal governments has ensured that the case has raised public suspicions and reached the judicial level from which it would be difficult to extricate.

The amazing silence on the part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) on the diplomatic status or otherwise of Raymond Davis has led to speculations that he did not enjoy immunity.

If he had, MOFA would have said so right in the beginning. Lending substance to this view is the kind of lethal and non-lethal equipment found in his car, which is unlikely to be carried by a bona-fide diplomat.

Then again, his car did not have diplomatic plates, though it is not yet known in whose name the car was registered.

The US position is that the Davis is a diplomat, and therefore, is entitled to diplomatic immunity for all acts and should be freed immediately.

That's why US officials have coached Davis to say nothing and not to cooperate in the investigations.

On its part, the US has not handed over the second car or its driver, which had run over the third Pakistani on January 27.

The position of the Punjab government at least is that Davis is not a diplomat and in the absence of an announcement by the federal government, the judicial process will determine his status.

In case he did not have diplomatic status, then the next crucial question is whether he acted in self-defense or was it murder. The Punjab Police have clearly indicated that it was murder and not self-defense and charged him accordingly.

The silence on the part of both countries on key aspects of the case and the ham-handed manner in which it has been dealt with by both has given conspiracy theorists, who abound in Pakistan, a field day.

Given the confused reports in the public domain and without the Pakistan Government giving an authoritative statement, there is a lurking suspicion that beyond the Vienna Conventions, there is a secret bilateral agreement between Pakistan and the US that gives diplomatic-like status to operatives like Raymond Davis.

This is why the US, knowing that Davis does not have regular diplomatic status, is continuing to insist that he has such status, and therefore, enjoys immunity and is tightening the screws on Pakistan, even at the risk of a rupture in relations.

That is also why the Pakistan Government is keeping silent on the issue. If this is so, it is very likely that if the confrontation continues, sooner or later, the US will arrange a leak about the secret agreement, which could cause a huge furor in Pakistan.

But beyond the questions of diplomatic immunity and self-defense versus murder, and even beyond the individuals involved, the real issue has become the future of US-Pak relations, its impact on the war on terror and Afghanistan and the kind of patron-client relations between the two countries.

The US has threatened, through a visiting congressional delegation that the US Congress may find it difficult to continue American aid unless Davis was released.

The US has put on hold all high level bilateral contacts. Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, General Asfaq Pervez Kayani, was delivered a terse message from US Secretary of States Hillary Clinton in Munich last week to have Davis released.

A similar message has been delivered to Pakistan's Ambassador in the United States Husain Haqqani.

The question being asked is why is the US taking such a strident stand for one individual, risking a rupture in relations?

Conspiracy theorists believe that the US is possibly apprehensive that if Davis is not released soon enough, the Pakistani authorities would interrogate him, and under sustained interrogation, he may reveal information that would make the Wikileaks revelations look like a nursery rhyme.

Several Pakistani commentators have speculated wildly about the links of Davis and his ilk with terrorists in Pakistan. Forever blaming others for their woes, these commentators have speculated that Davis could possibly be linked to the terrorist violence in Pakistan in recent times, something that the US would go to great lengths to prevent from coming out.

Beyond the individual case of Raymond Davis, the problem for the US is that like Davis, it has hundreds of operatives in the garb of 'consultants' and 'contractors' working not only in Pakistan, but also in other trouble spots like Afghanistan and Iraq, etc.

All of them would be watching how the Davis case is handled by the US, because it will directly impact on their own security and mechanics of operation.

It is common knowledge that the US uses such contractors to do its dirty work abroad. Without the unhindered operations of these contractors, the US will not be able to achieve whatever objectives it has set for itself. These contractors operate beyond the pale of the local law, but enable the US government to tell Congress and the US people that they are not violating any US law.

The other question is whether the threats are real or only threats. Can the US afford a rupture in relations over this case?

As opposed to the stake that the US has in the persona of Davis and others like him across the world, are the stakes that the US has in Afghanistan and Pakistan in pursuing the war on terror.

The fact of the matter is that the US cannot withdraw from Afghanistan without an exit strategy for which it needs Pakistan. They are also hugely dependent on Pakistan for supplies to its 1.5-lakh troops in Afghanistan. According to one estimate, almost 80 percent of US/NATO supplies and 60 percent of fuel comes through Pakistan.

In October 2010, Pakistan had stopped US/NATO supplies in retaliation for the killing of three of its soldiers in a NATO helicopter attack in Pakistani air space in the Khurram Agency.

Pakistan closed the Torkham check post and it was opened only on October 10 after the US Ambassador to Pakistan Ann Patterson had apologized on October 6 for the terrible accident.

According to Pakistan's spin-doctors, it was only after the US apologized that they allowed the supplies to be resumed. According to the US spin-doctors, Pakistan could not withstand stopping the supplies for more than ten days.

Either way, the incident demonstrated how much the US needed Pakistan for its war effort in Afghanistan.

In addition to logistics, without Pakistan's even grudging participation in the war on terror, the US would find the going much tougher in Afghanistan, than at present.

Finally, the US would hardly relish seeing Pakistan implode as it is teetering on the edge of radicalization. Disruption in relations with US and especially of economic assistance, could spiral out of control and finally push Pakistan towards rapid radicalization. With a nuclear arsenal, the last thing the US would want is a Talibanised Pakistan.

On its part, Pakistan desperately needs the US to keep it afloat, to bail it out of its massive economic crisis and to ensure that Pakistan is not squeezed by international financial institutions and other donor countries leading to default on its payments.

Three other factors make the situation complex for Pakistan and render an easy way out difficult.

First, anti-Americanism in Pakistan is deep-rooted. Recent incidents like the Aafia Siddiqui case and the continuing drone attacks have heightened such anti-Americanism. The handling of the Raymond Davis affair and US pressure and threats to have him released has created the perception that the US is belittling Pak's sovereignty. For the average Pakistani, especially in Punjab, the incident is a graphic example of the impunity with which Americans operate in the country and ride roughshod over its democratic institutions, especially the judiciary in this case.

Such anti-Americanism has got morphed with the agitation led by religious parties on the blasphemy law. Anticipating elections this year, the religious parties have linked the Raymond Davis case to the blasphemy agitation in order to galvanise public support so that the federal government, under US pressure, does not release Raymond Davis. They have raised the question of Pak sovereignty and pride and are egging people to stand up against US efforts to get Davis released.

Given the heightened hatred of America, it is extremely difficult for the Pakistan Government to release Davis, especially under US pressure. Having become an emotional issue, any perception of the law being bent under US pressure will bring people to the streets in a manner that will make Egypt look like a picnic.

Second, the issue has brought into sharp focus the shadow boxing between the Pakistan People's Party (PPP)-led federal government and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)-led Punjab province.

The PML-N believes that elections will be held this year and would want to take advantage of any adverse situation that the PPP would find itself in.

It had, prior to this incident; given the PPP government a kind of ultimatum to improve its performance that most believe is beyond the capacity of the government to fulfill. Both sides are shifting the blame for the situation on the other and trying to obtain a much mileage as they can from it.

Third, how would the possible stoppage of US aid impact on its economy and on the Pakistan army? An emotional response has been that stoppage of aid would do Pakistan a favour, which will then learn to stand on its own feet. Others, more mature and reasoned feel that this would be catastrophic and that since Pakistan has a begging bowl in its hand it can't afford to confront the US.

It is perhaps to formulate a political consensus that President Zardari has called for a round table conference. He would like all political parties to be on board on any decision taken in the matter and evolve a consensus to either buckle under US pressure and hand over Davis to the US or to confront the US. He would not like any political party to make capital out of any decision that the Government may be forced to take. For precisely that reason, the other political parties are unlikely to oblige and will probably let the government face the flak and take the tough decision itself.

One other factor that would weigh in any decision that Pakistan makes would be the impact that estranged US-Pak relations would have on India. The perception is that US and India will now form an anti-Pakistan nexus. US cozying up to India during the Obama visit in November is still fresh in public memory. It is feared that this could have destabilizing consequences in Baluchistan and in other parts of the Pakistan.

As against the negatives in the situation, some commentators have focused on two positives. One is the assessment that the US is making empty threats. The US cannot compromise the safety of 1.5 lakh forces in Afghanistan by alienating Pakistan over one individual. According to one commentator, when Pakistan stopped supplies for a week in October last, the US forces ran out of toilet paper and food had to be rationed. Therefore, they believe that the US cannot push Pakistan beyond a point.

It has also been suggested that Pakistan has so far resisted enormous US pressure to act in North Waziristan. Therefore, it should be able to resist US pressure on Davis.

However, what had not been publicized is that there is an alternative supply route to Afghanistan from Russia and Central Asia. Earlier, Russia had only allowed US to send non-lethal American supplies across its territories by train. But since July 2010 Russia has agreed to all supplies signaling its willingness to support the US/NATO efforts in Afghanistan.

As far as India is concerned, some commentators have put forward the argument that as a counter, Pakistan could blackmail the US by shifting troops from the Afghan border to the Indian border thereby weakening US efforts on the war of terror. The US would not want this to happen and therefore they would prevail on India not to indulge in any anti-Pakistan activities.

Another crucial question is about Raymond Davis's security. According to some media reports, unarmed guards in the inner cordon are guarding him lest one of the guards does a Qadri on him (Mumtaz Qadri was one of the guards who gunned down Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer). Davis is clearly a high value target and his physical presence has become a bone stuck in the throat of US-Pak relations. His 'escape' or 'encounter' would no doubt have crossed the minds of several people in Pakistan and the US as an easy way out of the imbroglio.

Clearly, the stakes are extremely high for both the US and Pakistan. Mandarins of the State Department and MOFA would be working overtime to arrive at a compromise, as a way out for both without rupturing their relations.

Time alone will tell who blinks first. (ANI)

Attn: News Editors/News Desks: The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr. Salim Haq.

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