March 1, 2011

White House Should Consider Siddiqui-Davis Swap

Last year the White House was offered a shortcut to rehabilitating America’s image in Pakistan. As Aafia Siddiqui’s New York trial descended into a circus, Siddiqui blaming her arrest on a “Zionist” plot and the U.S. prosecution rejecting her claim to mental illness, the Pakistani people rallied behind what they saw as the latest American injustice. Anti-U.S sentiment overflowed as Pakistani Prime Minister Rauf Gilani privately advised, “visiting American delegations that releasing Aafia Siddiqui unconditionally would greatly improve the image of the Americans in the public’s eyes.”

The White House scoffed and threw Siddiqui in jail for 83 years. Now it’s balked a second time at what could be the “cleanest” deal available for CIA spy Raymond Davis. Pakistani sources have revealed that Islamabad submitted the exchange, and received the reply that it was “a non-starter” because “these were two different cases.” Isn't that the point?

America’s response to Davis’s arrest can summed in the ancient proverb: cutting off one’s nose to spite the face.

Washington’s position is understandable in a legal vacuum, where precedent rules, and at the global level. Believing that Davis qualifies for diplomatic immunity under his employment at a U.S. consulate, the White House doesn’t want to negotiate and weaken its claim over the rest of Davis’s kind. Doing so may compromise other agents operating in diplomatic limbo.

With Pakistan running a new status check, the CIA has already suspended over 30 agents in Pakistan, at least publicly, while another 12 have fled the country. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry registers 851 Americans with diplomatic immunity, 297 of which work outside a diplomatic capacity, while sources at the Interior Ministry estimate the total of non-diplomats at 414. Many of these 'special Americans' are suspected covert US intelligence agents reporting to the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

They also disregard the Foreigners Act of 1946, which states that foreign citizens are not allowed to live in cantonment areas. Suspected agents in Lahore allegedly live within the Officers'/Generals' Colony on Sarwar Road and Cavalry Ground in the Lahore Cantonment. Some believe they stay hidden within the military’s security apparatus because Delta Force is “considered armed and dangerous,” or just to monitor and keep them out of view.

Not all of this information need be true to paint a realistic picture of what’s happening. These are the “diplomats” that President Barack Obama personally and explicitly claims to possess immunity, "diplomats" who used to work for Blackwater. And they do great damage to America’s wider interests in the region by becoming its face.

Thus while Davis’s unconditional release satisfies Washington’s legal and military interests abroad, this outcome negatively affects the war in Afghanistan and stability in South Asia.

Although Washington demands that Islamabad understand its position on Davis, the White House has rejected all inquiries into Siddiqui’s release. After attempting to kill U.S. troops, Siddiqui’s release would trigger a conservative backlash and possibly even liberal disapproval. The White House sees no need to trade the “murderous” Siddiqui for the “self-defensive” Davis - and cause a PR disaster in the process. Why trade a guilty person for an innocent person?

If the guilty isn’t so guilty and the innocent not so innocent.

Defending Siddiqui is unnecessary. For argumentative purposes she can guilty on all charges: her bag of U.S. targets and a laundry list of attempted murder charges. These specifics gain more importance during peace time, but during counterinsurgency perceptions come to influence and often dominate reality. Image control becomes equal to tactical and legal considerations. As America repeatedly fails to realize in Pakistan, perceptions are an integral part of long-term strategy during COIN.

At the time of her trial, U.S. and some Pakistani analysts blamed the country’s feverish media for drumming up anti-American sentiment. Perhaps the situation would be different if Pakistanis generally liked Americans, but this idealistic thinking ignores the initial absence of trust. The abysmal track record of U.S. policy is responsible for anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan, not Pakistanis, their media, and nationalistic officials.

“The iconization of Aafia Siddiqui as an emblem of Pakistani womanhood represents the kind of female rebel acceptable in a rapidly Islamizing Pakistani society,” said Dawn columnist Rafia Zakaria. “Leaving a husband for a second marriage, traveling alone, even putting your children in harm’s way, all acts that would be otherwise reviled, became acceptable when they are done with the ultimate aim of defying the United States."

Both Siddiqui’s own feelings and the perceptions surrounding her are products of short-sighted, authoritarian U.S. policy, not random acts of violence and aggression. Her treatment enraged Pakistanis because of long-standing perceived hypocrisy.

“On Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the Americans are showing no leniency,” the source said. “They have informed Pakistan that they are not even going to pursue it.”

As an alternative, Washington is considering a swap for an ISI chief on trial for links to the Mumbai massacre, which left four Americans and two Israeli-Americans dead. The move was already under review, according to Pakistani sources, and, “At one stage, the Americans were going to file papers in the court, stating that the ISI chief enjoyed sovereign immunity but decided not to do so after Mr. Davis’s arrest.” The CIA has waited to play their chip every since.

Except this swap still doesn’t repair the weakest link in U.S.-Pakistani relations. The CIA and ISI may reset their “rules of the game,” as every official seems to say, yet this backroom arrangement leaves the wider relationship between Pakistanis, their own government, and Washington in the gutter. Pakistani officials admit that stiff punishment back in America is unlikely, which would compound resentment. And Siddiqui, supposedly insane from her treatment, poses no danger if kept in confinement and treated.

Americans tend to think that Islamabad doesn’t value their lives. Washington shares the mentality that U.S. life comes before Pakistani life - and wonders how Islamabad could put Pakistanis before Americans. Releasing Siddiqui would be perceived as equal. Conversely, Davis’s unconditional escape or blood money transfer will further alienate a key long-term asset in the Pakistani public.

Then Washington is choosing to continue making enemies and lacing targets, rather than bring true peace to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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