The Obama administration has grappled over the past three weeks with how to respond to public uprisings and the ouster of long-ruling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But it has also been confronted with a growing under-the-radar diplomatic crisis in its relations with Pakistan. Breaking the current deadlock on this crisis and avoiding serious damage to the long-term relationship presents a serious challenge both to the United States and to a divided Pakistani leadership.
The continued detention against U.S. objections of Raymond Davis has derailed regular high-level engagement between the two countries. Davis is an employee of the U.S. embassy who shot and killed two Pakistani men in Lahore on January 27 (a third passerby was killed by a separate embassy vehicle departing the scene). President Barack Obama himself issued a call for Davis’s release on Tuesday and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) has traveled to Islamabad to discuss the issue with Pakistani leaders.
The indefinite delay—officially attributed to an unrelated cabinet reshuffle in Pakistan—of high-level trilateral talks between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States suggests the costs of failing to resolve the issue. Anonymous Pakistani sources have already warned that “postponement [of the talks] is certainly a setback for the Afghan reconciliation process.”
American officials in turn have expressed frustration over Pakistani officials’ inability or unwillingness to confirm that Davis holds the diplomatic immunity they argue he is entitled to. Pakistani press accounts of the case feature multiple dueling interpretations by officials speaking on background as to what sort of passport Davis holds; what his responsibilities were for the embassy; whether Pakistani law allows immunity even against charges of murder; and the exact identity of his victims, which have been variously identified as robbers who Davis shot in self-defense, innocent civilians, and Pakistani intelligence agents who had been assigned to follow Davis’s movements. The interrogation and investigation reports of the Pakistani police involved in the case have leaked profusely into the press. This raises doubts as to whether any fair trial is possible.
U.S. diplomats’ attempts to negotiate a resolution to the case are made more difficult by the complex array of Pakistani actors involved. The national Pakistani People’s Party government, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, depends considerably on good relations with the United States to shore up its weakening domestic political base. But the government coalition is extremely fragile at the moment. And Islamist parties such as the Jamiat-e-Islami, while weak electorally, have demonstrated the ability to organize public protests against any move to free Davis. These protests have only grown louder following the suicide by one of the two men’s widows on February 7.
The constraints on the government’s response are organizational as well as political. Pakistan’s newly independent courts have taken a confrontational stand against the government since it first assumed office and the case is being investigated and prosecuted by the provincial rather than federal government.
The federal government is also divided internally. Former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has rejected Davis’s immunity claims—a move he now says cost him reappointment to his ministry in the recent cabinet shuffle. The Pakistani military’s interest in the case is evident but its exact position is difficult to discern given its behind-the-scenes role and the apparent covert nature of Davis’s activities.
These interlocking actors and the intense domestic media scrutiny all constrain the ability of the Pakistani government to act swiftly and decisively. Its inaction, however, raises the stakes as time goes on. The most recent reports indicate that the Pakistani federal government is preparing to inform the court where Davis’s case is being heard that they do believe he holds immunity. Mindful of the backlash that awaits them, however, they will defer the decision to a court judgment on the matter.
It is difficult to predict what that judgment will be. Sen. Kerry reiterated the American stance that “this case does not belong in the court … because this man has diplomatic immunity” in his visit to Islamabad. Promises by Kerry that the United States will conduct investigations into the case as soon as Davis is returned to American custody offer some concession to Pakistani demands for justice. Still, it is unlikely that this will assuage those who oppose Davis’s release. Nonetheless, Kerry’s apologies for the loss of life are an important addition to the U.S. message on the case.
U.S. congressional leaders have warned that continued inaction by Pakistan on the Davis issue may place the sizable assistance Pakistan receives from the United States at risk. While American aid to Pakistan does need close scrutiny to ensure its effectiveness, U.S. policymakers should be cautious about using leverage like aid cuts or diplomatic freezes.
They need to understand which actors they are punishing with these cuts. At this point, cuts to civilian-assistance programs in Pakistan are more likely to accelerate the country’s existing financial crunch, damage the partnership, and revive resentments of a “transactional relationship” than produce desired policy outcomes. For all our frustrations with the current leadership, supporting democratically elected civilian government in Pakistan must be a priority for the United States if the country’s long-term sources of instability are ever to be resolved.
Despite strains and conflicting strategic priorities, both the United States and Pakistan are dependent on one another for a host of regional security, economic, and other concerns. Keeping the U.S.-Pakistan partnership afloat means both sides need to understand the domestic constraints the multiple actors operate under and work to avoid further exacerbating the mutual suspicion that characterizes the relationship.
Colin Cookman is a Research Assistant for National Security at American Progress.