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
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:
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
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.
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