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U.S. Diplomat Could Bring Down Pakistan Gov’t

6 minute read
Omar Waraich / Islamabad

The scene could have been scripted in a Hollywood action thriller: For two hours at the end of last month in Lahore, U.S. diplomat Raymond Davis was closely pursued by two visibly armed men on a motorbike. He noticed them tailing him from a restaurant to an ATM, and through the crowded streets of Pakistan’s second city. They were close by when, in a crowded intersection, Davis produced his own handgun and fired seven shots. The diplomat was apparently a crack shot, and all seven bullets found their mark, killing his two pursuers. Davis then called for back-up, and a four-wheel-drive vehicle raced onto the scene, striking a Pakistani bystander who was killed by the impact. But the people in the vehicle, whose identities remain unknown, escaped from the scene having failed to retrieve Davis, who was later arrested nearby. In custody, Davis has told Pakistani authorities that he acted in self-defense, and has invoked diplomatic immunity, an international convention that protects diplomats from prosecution in the countries where they serve.

Two weeks later, Davis remains behind bars, facing murder charges. And the incident has plunged the already troubled relationship between Washington and Islamabad to a new low. Pakistani officials say Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week canceled a meeting with her Pakistani counterpart and is considering withdrawing an invitation for President Asif Ali Zardari to a trilateral summit with Afghan President Hamid Karzai later this month. But at home, Zardari faces intense pressure to prosecute Davis. The hitherto obscure employee of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad has now become a lightning rod for the fierce anti-American sentiments shared by an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis.

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For Washington, the matter is simple: Davis, officals say, acted in self-defense when threatened by the two armed men trailing him. His diplomatic passport entitles him to full immunity from criminal prosecution under the Vienna Convention. And that message has been firmly relayed to Pakistan. “The pressure is huge from the U.S. end,” says a Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But the pressure in Pakistan, from the army and the public, is huge also.”

Zardari’s government, heavily dependent on U.S. aid, is keen to see Davis released. “We need them more than they need us,” says the Pakistani official. But public sentiment in Pakistan makes it hard for the government to be seen bowing to U.S. pressure, and its foreign ministry won’t unequivocally confirm that Davis enjoys diplomatic immunity. And the government’s problem is its opponents’ opportunity. Davis is being prosecuted by the state government of Punjab, run by the opposition party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif’s party looks set to extract political mileage by striking a proud, nationalist posture. The case of Raymond Davis has become the new rallying point for the religious parties that drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets last month to support of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. And local media has amplified hostility, which has reached a new peak this week after one of the slain men’s widow committed suicide this week, reportedly out of despair that her husband’s killer would evade justice.

But the decisive pressure on Zardari in the Davis case comes from Pakistan’s military, for reasons that are only now becoming apparent. Davis, they say, was no ordinary diplomat. They cite the skill with which he eliminated his pursuers as suggesting a familiarity with arms not common in the diplomatic corps. His fluency in Urdu and Pashto are also remarkable considering that he first arrived in Pakistan as recently as October 2009. A series of documents obtained by the Pakistani news channel DawnNews — some said to have been in Davis’ possession but whose authenticity can’t be verified — suggest that the 36-year-old Nevada native carried a diplomatic passport and was a member of the Embassy’s “Administrative and Technical Staff”. These documents reportedly also name him as a Department of Defense contractor, and co-owner of Hyperion Protective Services.

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Equally misleading, say Pakistani officials, is the claim in Pakistani media that Davis’ victims had been “ordinary men”, or even as “robbers,” as the State Department has suggested. “They were from the ISI,” says a government official, referring to Pakistan’s military intelligence agency. It isn’t clear, the official says, whether they were full paid-up agents or local informants. The two men had been tasked with tailing Davis, Pakistani officials say. “He had been traveling to Waziristan and meeting with people that the army doesn’t approve of,” says a Pakistani official, implying that Davis had met with Pakistani militants. While U.S. contractors and intelligence agents operate in Pakistan with the military’s approval and often in cooperation, it insists they operate within strictly circumscribed parameters. Davis, according to some Pakistani accounts, had crossed a red line, and was being shadowed in a crude effort at intimidation.

The loss of two men linked with the ISI has injured the Pakistani military’s pride, officials say, and comes amid rising tensions with Washington. Last December, the CIA station chief in Islamabad was forced to leave Pakistan after his identity was compromised. Langley blamed the ISI for the leak, a charge that the Pakistanis deny. Relations between the two agencies are now viewed has having dropped to their lowest-level in years, even as they are forced to work together on shaping a settlement in Afghanistan.

As domestically rewarding as it may be, brinkmanship over Davis imperils the long-term fortunes of Pakistan’s government. “There’s no choke on aid yet,” says a senior Pakistani official. But if the standoff continues, and especially if Davis is convicted, it could be reduced to a trickle. And that could have a potentially catastrophic impact on an economy threatened by hyperinflation and the devaluation of its currency in the coming months. But a brittle government under strong pressure from its electorate and military may struggle to survive if it frees Raymond Davis.

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