Washington has a simple account of Raymond Davis: He was an employee of the US consulate in Lahore who shot two men in self-defence. Since he has ‘diplomatic immunity’, he should be released under the Vienna Convention immediately.
We now know from media reports that Davis “carried out scouting and other reconnaissance missions as a security officer for Central Intelligence Agency case officers and technical experts.”
That Mr Davis was a contractor for the CIA is immaterial to the issue of immunity. Countries — including Pakistan — routinely use their embassies and consulates for intelligence collection and operations and persons involved in this operate with relative safety under ‘official cover’. While few Americans have heard of Raymond Davis, he is a national obsession in Pakistan’s print and television media. Pakistanis have called for his hanging in public rallies, which have been organised by militant groups like the Jamaatud Dawa.
Revelations that US media withheld information about Davis at the behest of the Obama administration have only fanned the conspiratorial flames that Pakistan’s varied intelligence agencies and Islamist groups alike can stoke among Pakistan’s wary public.
From Pakistan, the ‘facts’ are far less clear, with the Pakistani press focusing upon other issues.
First, Raymond Davis is not the true name of the man in question. A Pakistani barrister, Iqbal Jafree, has suggested that Davis came to Pakistan using a fake name. If this is the case, he has argued, another legal case may also be registered against him. Second, Pakistani coverage maintains that Davis’s possession and use of a firearm was illegal under Pakistani laws. Third, the Pakistani media suggest that Davis got out of his vehicle and shot his victims in the back. Fourth, Pakistan’s media have widely reported that a camera was recovered from Davis upon his arrest, which, reportedly, contained photos of sensitive installations. Pakistani media outlets have made these photos available to the public. Pakistanis accept the authenticity of the footage, and its worrisome implications, as a matter of fact. Fifth, and most importantly, much of Pakistan’s media outright rejects the US’s central claim that Mr Davis has diplomatic immunity. This latter claim is flawed, even if it is widely believed. One thoughtful Pakistani commentator, Raza Rumi, writing on these very pages, has tried to take issue with it. Finally, if the media spectacle were not provocative enough, the suicide of the widow of one of the slain, Mohammad Faheem, has further inflamed Pakistani sentiments about the case and strengthened the nation’s resolve to try Davis as a cold-blooded murderer.
The Raymond Davis issue is iconic of the challenges of US-Pakistani relations. Pakistani rage over Davis is layered upon simmering anger over the inaccurately maligned US drone programme. President Zardari’s party has had internal rifts over how best to deal with the imbroglio. Given Zardari’s weak government, the PML-N has exploited the situation and complicated any possible resolution of the issue. From outside, it seems as if the government has simply outsourced the resolution of the awkward situation to Pakistan’s activist courts, despite the fact that this is strictly a Foreign Office issue.
Given the legal clarity of the matter, a bothersome question persists: What elements of the Pakistani government are stoking these dangerous, populist sentiments and to what end?
In the end, this incident is likely to turn into a showdown between the ISI and the CIA. The two outfits have tended to work well together in the past. However, they have burgeoning disagreements over the ISI’s support of the Afghan Taliban and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaatud Dawa.
Is this affair a clarion signal that Islamabad does not want to continue the strategic relationship that Washington peddles with naïve optimism?
The answer to this query is critical. The new US Congress is trying to slash budget outlays everywhere, including those of the US Department of Defence and USAID, among others. Congresspersons are increasingly frustrated with what they see as Pakistani indifference or even ingratitude towards US assistance amidst the most serious economic hardship for Americans since the Great Depression. The amount of humanitarian assistance to Pakistan exceeds the entire sum of humanitarian assistance to all other countries combined.
Zardari’s government may have punted on this issue to save its hide. What will happen to the government if the moneys from Kerry-Lugar-Berman — which the government has already programmed — are axed by a furious US Congress, which does not abide by the diktat of the US president and whose members are less persuaded of the need to sustain this turbulent relationship when Pakistan’s interests appear to diverge starkly from those of the United States?
In the end, there may be some marginal benefit to be obtained from this absurd drama of diplomatic duplicity, if it does not precipitate a complete bilateral breakdown.
To resolve this impasse and free Davis, the US government will have to present evidence about the nature of the position of Raymond Davis in Pakistan’s courts. This will likely reveal just as much information about Islamabad’s complicity in these complex arrangements as it does about Davis and the US mission in Pakistan.
In doing so, the Davis disaster may be a long overdue occasion to cast much-needed transparency on the activities of the US government in Pakistan and the nature of its ties to various Pakistani agencies, which may have connivance in this tragic incident.
This will be good for Americans and Pakistanis alike, as they struggle to understand the extent of the codependence of their two nations and how best to manage it.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 24th, 2011.
A version of this article first appeared on Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak Channel on February 18th, 2011.