The United States State Department has announced that the trilateral United States-Pakistan-Afghanistan meeting at foreign minister level, scheduled to take place in Washington on February 23-24, has been indefinitely postponed. Washington ascribes the postponement due to a cabinet reshuffle in Islamabad on Friday in which foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was replaced.
Islamabad has also signaled that the proposed visit by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is in doubt – “There is no clear date for the president’s visit”.
Meanwhile, there have been threatening noises from Washington that US aid to Pakistan might be in jeopardy and, if ABC News is to be believed, a top White House official warned the Pakistani ambassador that diplomatic ties might be curtailed.
All this is happening on account of the continued detention of a single American national commonly known as “Raymond Davis” in the Pakistani city of Lahore, despite the urgings by senior US officials at the political and diplomatic level that he should be forthwith released.
Davis is employed by the US government and is accused of shooting dead two armed men in Lahore. The US Embassy in Islamabad said the man, who it claims fired in self-defense, is covered by diplomatic immunity and should be immediately released.
Davis’ detention ought to have been a perfect case for some quiet, patient diplomacy. The incident has impacted on Pakistan’s fragile political situation. The widespread “anti-Americanism” that lurks just below the surface in Pakistani society; popular indignation bordering on anger that the government is colluding with the US’s war in Afghanistan; tensions between the federal government in Islamabad and the opposition-run provincial government in Lahore (which arrested Davis); the tenuous equations between the civilian government and the military; and the sheer ambiguity surrounding the incident (who is “Davis” actually, what was his mission on that fateful evening in Lahore, and so on) – all these complicate the Davis case.
Despite all this, Washington has deliberately opted for a course of muscular diplomacy, of openly pressuring the Pakistani authorities in full public view. The abrasive diplomacy appears unwarranted, and it is common sense that given the sensitivities involved it would incur the risk of being counter-productive.
Even vis-a-vis Iran and North Korea, Washington prefers to painstakingly use back channels when diplomatic feathers get ruffled. Pakistan is also a traditional ally of the US, and Washington has no lack of communication lines to get through to the powers that be in Islamabad and the garrison city of Rawalpindi. Discretion demanded that Washington allow a “cooling-off” period and in the meanwhile work through confidential channels of communication to arrive at a satisfactory solution.
Astoundingly, what we are witnessing is exactly to the contrary. An “area specialist” in the US with links to the establishment wrote:
Better relations will require Washington and Pakistan to confront the edifice of ossified fictions that surround and ultimately undermine this complex and strained relationship. Washington needs to aggressively combat the historical untruths that have become legendary fact as vigorously as it needs to understand the Pakistan that is, not the Pakistan it might want to be … If the United States and Washington can ever re-optimize their bilateral relationship, both will have to make a concerted effort to resist rehearsing past fictions and creating new ones.
Tirades like this and the steady stream of American official threats in the past fortnight directed at Pakistan over the Davis case aren’t having the desired effect.
Islamabad is not impressed by the US’s posturing. Even after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani on the sidelines of the 47th Munich security conference 10 days ago, Pakistan crossed the Rubicon with the decisive step to formally charge Davis in a court of law in Lahore with pre-meditated murder and on that basis got him remanded to prison for another 14 days for interrogation.
Again, the ousted Qureshi has plunged into the controversy without any foreplay, alleging that Clinton pressured him to “publicly confirm diplomatic immunity of Davis. However, I refused to do so because it was against the factual position in the case.”
He said, “The kind of blanket immunity Washington is pressing for Davis is not endorsed by the official record of the Foreign Ministry,” adding that Washington even “threatened that Hillary Clinton would not meet me at the Munich conference on February 6 if the request was not granted.” Qureshi possibly has a motivation to link his removal as foreign minister with his firm stance on the Davis case, but the damage has been done.
Why are the stakes so heavily loaded? What raises eyebrows among observers in Delhi is that Davis, who as a highly trained operative killed two motorcyclists who were tailing his car in obtrusive intelligence work for over an hour, knowing full well who they were. As a former US special forces officer, Davis was knowledgeable enough to estimate that such obtrusive intelligence was not meant to be life-threatening but was intended to be intimidating and obstructive. In short, Davis lost his cool at some point when he found he couldn’t shake off his “tail”.
The Pakistani authorities have been leaking to the media that they knew Davis was in touch with the “Pakistani Taliban”. The Washington Post quoted Pakistani intelligence officials to the effect that the two motor cyclists were warning Davis that he was crossing some “red line” (meaning, he was about to do something unacceptable to Pakistan’s national security interests) and it was at that point he shot them.
Clearly, the US has every reason to believe that the Pakistani side knows much more than it is prepared to admit, and if Davis breaks down after sustained interrogation in police custody, he might spill explosive stuff. This explains the highly contradictory versions that the US has given about Davis’ identity and the nature of his assignment in Pakistan.
What emerges from the pattern of the US reaction is that Davis’ detention has sent alarm bells ringing all the way to the White House. The US is apprehensive that the Davis case has the potential to shake up the very foundations of its alliance with Pakistan. Therefore, it has done the most natural thing that most countries facing a grave predicament vis-a-vis a foreign country would do – take the high moral ground straightaway and place itself in denial mode, come what may.
So, what did Davis do for a living? From the adamant fashion in which Islamabad (despite being highly vulnerable to US aid cutoff) is reacting, it seems it has no real choices in the matter. This seems to be a situation in which, as someone once said, you only live once.
The heart of the matter is that Pakistan has been wondering for a long time who it is who could be instigating the so-called “Pakistani Taliban” to inflict such bloody wounds on the Pakistani military and weaken and incrementally destabilize the Pakistani state.
It has been convenient to point the finger from time to time at the Indians, but when Pakistani state institutions were attacked, especially the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence, as precise targets, Islamabad would have had deeper suspicions, especially asa the close links between the former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh and the US security establishment was a fact known to Pakistani agencies.
Conventional wisdom, especially among Indian propagandists, has been that what is happening inside Pakistan is a kind of “blowback” of terrorism. Some Indian pundits even claimed that the “serpent” that the Pakistani state nurtured over the years (namely, extremist outfits) for poisoning India’s environs has now turned against the Pakistani state itself.
While this thesis has its seductive power, it is based on simplistic assumptions regarding the processes going on within Pakistan, especially the dialectics involving the vehicles of militancy and extremism and the state security apparatus. The Pakistani military and its highly efficient intelligence set-up could have concluded a long time ago that under the cover of the “Pakistani Taliban”, all sorts of free-wheeling forces were at work. Washington is openly doing hero-worshipping of Amrullah Saleh even months after Afghan President Hamid Karzai sacked the spymaster almost as a prerequisite for improving Afghan-Pakistan relations.
Davis can most certainly provide the proverbial “missing link” to Pakistan to connect several dots on an intriguing chessboard. Conceivably, he will be sent back home at some point, but by then he may be a “burnt-out case” and Pakistan would have gained a far better understanding of the US’s regional policies.
With over 100,000 American troops out on a limb in Afghanistan and the snow melting on the Hindu Kush mountains and a new “fighting season” just round the corner, the prospect surely unnerves Washington. The postponement of the trilateral meeting in Washington shows up the uncertainties.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
NOTE:This is a cross post.