March 15, 2011

U.S. Needs Image Makeover in Pakistan

Nuclear metaphors have become temporarily politically incorrect after Fukushima. However, the phrase “atomic bomb” wrapped itself around the case of Raymond Davis, a CIA spy with Special Forces and Blackwater training, before Japan’s ongoing nightmare. Conflict management only differs by scale, not in theory, and Davis’s arrest will leave scarring damage to Pakistani society regardless of the solution.

Even the best case scenario isn’t looking good.

Davis is set for trial after Pakistani’s Lahore High Court rejected America’s immunity petition on Monday. He faces up to five counts of murder: Faizan Haider and Muhammed Faheem, fatally shot on January 27th, a pedestrian (Ibad-ur Rehman) run over by Davis's speeding Embassy rescuers, Muhammad’s widow (Shumaila Kanwal) who committed suicide on February 7th, and an operative allegedly hired by Davis to infiltrate the Islamic militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

Davis might face additional charges of funding terrorists, an ironic twist given his motive to spy: the Pentagon has accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of funding and protecting LeT agents as part of the country’s strategic depth in India and Afghanistan. This obstacle in U.S.-Pakistani relations has spawned every ISI conspiracy imaginable.

Unfortunately Washington’s damage control remains focused on the wrong areas. Without repeating ourselves too much, the State Department’s primary methods of extraction will insufficiently limit the political and public fallout from Davis’s release. One U.S. diplomat told Fox News that Davis’s trial is being utilized by the CIA and ISI to "kick the can along” until a political agreement can be reached. Then there's the chatter of "resetting the rules of the game."

Except resetting the rules between two spy agencies doesn't do much for the average Pakistani.

U.S. Embassy sources also claim the State Department has resigned itself to the court ruling against Davis’s immunity. Given that an inter-agency agreement carries no weight by itself, Washington is depending on the Pakistani military’s ability to sway the civilian government into releasing Davis under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The immediate obstacle is that Islamabad must first convict Davis before releasing him into U.S. custody, where he would serve his sentence.

Washington is crazy to believe that Islamabad will take the public fall for Davis's actions. But even though this arrangement possesses an outside chance of placating Pakistan’s public, the odds favor renewed distrust in Islamabad and resentment of America.

A second tactic - diyat or blood money - follows a similar pattern. While an agreement with the victims’ families sounds appealing in a vacuum, Washington cannot pay diyat to every Pakistani harboring anti-American sentiment. Diyat doesn’t rebuild the FATA, stop an unpopular war in Afghanistan, or bring freedom to Kashmir. And now the White House is once more turning to Saudi Arabia to bail it out; the Kingdom has reportedly offered to fly the families to Mecca in an attempt to persuade them to accept diyat.

“It is the clergy which has the street power,” a source explained of Pakistan’s public mood, “but once the Saudi clergy prevails upon the mullahs here, a lot of give and take can take place.”

The possibility of Saudi clerics providing religious cover for their Pakistani counterparts cannot be ruled out, and at least demonstrates an attempt to shape public perceptions. Nevertheless, we’ve addressed the shortfalls of diyat here, with the two main problems being an incomplete political solution and the victims’ own refusal.

Finally, it appears that Washington might have resorted to the worst response possible - halting U.S. aid to Pakistan. India’s Daily News & Analysis writes, “According to well informed diplomatic circles in Islamabad, the disbursements of the American military and civilian aid, which was being provided to Pakistan under the Coalition Support Fund and Kerry-Lugar aid package, have already been blocked by the Obama administration, but without making any announcement in this regard.”

Rather than pressure Islamabad into submission, this strong-arm tactic is liable to harden its position. And the costs run extremely high if the White House does succeed in releasing Davis. Pakistan needs far more economic aid than the U.S. delivers and Washington knows it. If this threat isn’t hollow, it’s foolishly counterproductive to Afghanistan’s stability.

Washington’s challenge is admittedly complex. To extract Davis with minimal damage to Pakistani society, five relationships must be repaired at once: the CIA and ISI, the U.S. and Pakistani governments, the U.S. government and the victims families, the U.S. government and the Pakistani people, and the Pakistani people and their government. A political agreement only settles political grievances between governments and intelligence agencies, while a social agreement with the victims’ families leaves Pakistanis’ wider resentment intact.

We may be oversimplifying Davis’s case, but simple answers do appear to exist. Washington’s brutish attitude played a large role in cornering Islamabad’s response, injecting steroids into excitable anti-American muscles. Even as the State Department slowly accepts Davis’s reality, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy just warned Pakistan that it's violates the Vienna Convention. Beyond America’s loss of credibility when appealing to international law, it is impossible to continue defending Davis as a diplomat. Doing so insults Pakistanis’ intelligence and dignity.

An apology may not look like much, but it’s free and capable of crossing social networks.

Washington fears remorse because it admits guilt, but a lack of remorse, according to the victims’ families, is why they object to U.S. dollars. Lack of remorse enraged the Pakistan’s public, predetermining Islamabad’s need to go through with a trial. Pakistani’s media didn't inflamed tensions - the U.S. government made itself an easy target. And Davis’s potential release comes with a heavy price if America continues to preach his innocence. The White House has forfeited the battle over its image in order to secure legal and military objectives, risking Pakistan’s political arena and ultimately jeopardizing the very reason why Davis is snooping around LeT - Afghanistan.

Perception often becomes reality in fourth-generation warfare, and risking the very environment these spies operate in equates to counterproductive COIN.

[Update: Davis was charged with two counts of murder on Wednesday. He has since been acquitted.]


  1. Well he's been released today and Hillary is implying the Pakistan government paid the blood money. Even if they did, they did so under immense US pressure. A disgrace across the board. A meltdown to follow your analogy.

  2. The only way today would have gone any worse is if they ran over a Pakistani on the way to the airport.