February 18, 2011

Raymond Davis: A Violation of Counterinsurgency Law

So now America cares about international law.

As Senator John Kerry returned from his one day jaunt to Pakistan, Congress’s self-appointed Pakistan “fixer” expressed confidence that Raymond Davis’s fate would be decided under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Although a Pakistani court has adjourned its ruling on whether Davis holds diplomatic immunity until March 14, the window offers time to negotiate a settlement in exchange for Davis’s extradition. Kerry assured Pakistani officials that a full criminal investigation would be opened on U.S. soil.

Naturally Washington isn’t concerned with international law so much as its own interests. On top of legally protecting U.S. diplomats across the world and attempting to redefine the status of contracted personnel, U.S. lawmakers are worried of the message sent to “agents” in Afghanistan.

“This is a friction point,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, “this is a troubling matter, it doesn’t play well in Afghanistan. We can’t throw this agent over, I don’t know all the details, but we cannot define the relationship based on one incident because it is too important at a time when we’re making progress in Afghanistan.”

Graham was referring to the debate over whether to suspend Pakistani aid until Davis is returned home. But if Washington does manage to free Davis from Pakistan’s authority, the resulting damage will similarly threaten this fragile “progress” that Graham speaks of. “I worry a lot about Pakistan,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

Poor public relations contribute to his anxiety as much as al-Qaeda.

The case of Raymond Davis remains anyone’s guess. Conspiracies flourish in Pakistan and Davis, a former Special Forces agent, allegedly traveled to Waziristan without informing Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). One version of the story has him killing two ISI agents sent to tail and possibly intimidate him. In any event, even those Pakistanis taking the contrarian view on Davis concede the shady circumstances surrounding his case.

Nor is there a legitimate explanation for a third civilian killed by the speeding embassy Land Cruiser summoned to retrieve him.

A legal battle quickly devolved into diplomatic conflict, with Washington and Islamabad disagreeing over the status of Davis’s visa (and whether he staffed the U.S. consulate or embassy). From there he morphed into a popular battle, as Pakistani public opinion turned decisively against Davis’s release. U.S. officials allege that while Islamabad accepts the legitimacy of Davis’s immunity, it fears that public outrage would spill over if America “got its way” again.

As emotions reach a boiling point, the liberal side of Pakistan’s media has attempted to nullify the wider opinion that Islamabad should hold firm. Some Pakistanis believe their country must adhere to international law rather than serve its own interests, and get rid of Davis before he undermines U.S. relations any further. Unfortunately this thinking, while technically correct, breaks down completely when applied in the real world instead of a vacuum.

“With respect to Davis,” President Barack Obama said Wednesday, his first comments since January 27th, “our diplomat in Pakistan, we’ve got a very simple principle here that every country in the world that is party to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations has upheld in the past and should uphold in the future. If our diplomats are in another country, then they are not subject to that country’s local prosecution. We respect it with respect to diplomats who are here. We expect Pakistan, that’s a signatory should recognize Davis as a diplomat, to abide by the same convention.”

A gutsy card to play as he pioneers drone technology over Pakistani soil.

The contrasting nature of international law and drones symbolizes the dilemma currently facing America: an overpowering hypocrisy. Obama has, in fact, limited drone activity over the past three weeks, speculated as damage control with Islamabad. Yet a ceasefire simply admits to the ambiguous legality of drones, particularly civilian collateral. Clearly the White House and CIA are now trying to pull the rug over drone strikes, as if they could actually fool Pakistanis in this way.

The chatter of blood money also fails to correct negative perceptions. Perhaps the victims will agree to a deal and consider their grievances settled, but not every Pakistani can receive a settlement. The reasons they vent their anger will remain: poverty, government corruption and unaccountability, and foreign interference.

To many, blood money reinforces the reality that politicians can bought and persuaded against the will of the Pakistani people.

Obama’s “principle” amounts to protecting U.S. operatives in foreign countries. The real principle at stake is the perceived inequality of life between Pakistanis and Americans. The White House’s heavy-handed response and repeated denials disregard the Pakistani view of being second-class citizens in their own country. This violation fuels their anger on top of the usual politico-economic symptoms known to cause revolution.

“On the political side, the economic side, at least from my perspective, it looks worse than it has in a long time," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen added to Gates’s testimony. "The vector is going in the wrong direction overall for the country. We are very unpopular there. You have seen that. It gets highlighted in each crisis.”

Even those advocating a settlement, such as the progressive Daily Times, concede Islamabad’s no-win situation: “Its awkward position is such that if Davis is not released, vital assistance and ‘friendship’ with the sole superpower will be put at stake and if he is released, the public backlash in Pakistan could shoot through the roof.”

Many judges have predicted upheaval akin to Mubarak’s final days were Davis pardoned. It’s almost as if Washington views Davis as a means for regime change, although this doesn’t seem possible given the Zardari government’s compliance. A military “transition” is another story, but Egypt's empowerment demonstrates that America once again finds itself behind the revolutionary curve.

Like Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi, one man’s actions have catalyzed the Pakistani public beyond their normal grievances with the state. Davis offers a concrete target to denounce a subservient government, a political lightning rod for people to latch onto. America’s hard-line response further contributed to the feeling that it acts with impunity in Pakistan, rendering the concept of diplomatic immunity obsolete. Egyptians rejected Mubarak’s parliamentary and constitutional arguments because they wanted both dissolved in the first place.

So too are Pakistanis questioning the legitimacy of immunity after America corrupted the principle.

Washington has reason to fear the message of losing an agent to Pakistan’s legal system. Yet there’s no corresponding concern for the message it sends to Pakistanis, which also damages the war effort in Afghanistan. Suddenly Pakistani “hearts and minds" don't carry much weight. And now that Pakistan is absorbing Egypt’s flavor, remaining so obstinate illustrates how little the White House has learned from Cairo.

Securing Davis’s release may uphold international law, but he's systematically violating General David Petraeus’s entire COIN manual.


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