Sowing the Seeds of Mutual Distrust

Hindsight is always 20-20

My take on the Raymond Davis situation is this: Pakistan is not a stable country, and whereas it’s not undergoing a full-scale civil war, the situation there cannot be termed “normal” by any stretch of the imagination.  Cultural differences aside, the political bickering, low-level civilian violence, and large swaths of territory under no central control are reminiscent of Italy’s “years of lead” — years in which, incidentally, many a Carabinieri or Poliza dello Stato lieutenant or investigator who saw a scooter pull up behind him at a stoplight might see his life flash before his eyes.

Davis is not, of course, a member of Pakistani’s security services, but great pains have been taken to prove that he had diplomatic credentials.  The amount of ink spilt on nit-picking this to death seems to have been done mainly by people who have very little understanding of how US facilities abroad work, who works in them, and which of the two Vienna conventions cover the official Americans abroad, as if all Americans working in embassies should wear pinstripes and serve cocktail sandwiches to other similarly-attired ponces that they met while on foreign exchange from their Ivy League school.  (Incidentally, this caricatured misunderstanding of how the Departments of State, Agriculture, Treasury, Customs and Justice, CIA and many other different government agencies also seems to have informed Congress’s recent and unfair-seeming decision to strip foreign service officers of a pay differential, but that is a subject for a different post.)  One wonders if some of this is due to the fact that Davis is a former Special Forces soldier from Wise, Virginia who is quite adept at handling a firearm, but I feel that these cultural issues miss the point, which is this:

Activities undertaken by the US government reflect the complex and not always harmonious relationship we have with Pakistan.  It’s obvious that we have a number of operations based out of our consulates and embassies which go far beyond processing visas and providing help to Americans.  The public often doesn’t know about them because that’s how the government doing them — and frequently the government of the host county — would rather keep them. Dawn‘s speculation that they are “identifying militant targets for a campaign of strikes by unmanned drone aircraft, gathering intelligence on militant groups and on Pakistan’s nuclear programme” is probably not too far off the mark.

L’affaire Davis exposes this in a way that is embarrassing for the US government, but also in a way that could be potentially much more damaging for the perennially-damaged Pakistani government.

What’s bedeviling about US-Pakistan relations is how governments of both countries seem to maintain the gentle fiction to constituencies back home that relations are quite normal and based on mutual trust instead of mutual suspicion, so that when something goes wrong, as it did in the Davis case, the press on both sides reports it as though it had happened in some country where armed men do not prowl the street and where, ostensibly, American reporters are not lured away and beheaded.

The root of the problem lies with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and our own intelligence agencies’ relationship with them. The ISI has repeatedly been accused of funneling information and money to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan while taking US money and offering to help us fight those same Taliban.  The simple thing for the Pakistani press to do is to channel the public resentment that many Pakistanis feel at the cagey alliance with the US, and declare the ISI-CIA relationship over, all while howling for Davis’s blood and shaming America for having a secret army of murderous brigands running amok in its cities.  But while this serves to mobilize public opinion against US involvement rather effectively; it does little to give Pakistanis faith in their own government.  ISI and US government collaboration will continue as a matter of pure necessity, and neither side will be thrilled about the continued strain. That the strain got to a point where both sides were pointing  guns at each other is unfortunate, but if the US government is being taken to task to explain what Davis was doing there, then ISI should be asked to explain who exactly was following Davis — if not in public, then at least in private.

I’ve come out before in these pages reminding Americans abroad that the countries they are in have laws, often very different ones, which must be followed.  But Davis is not Amanda Knox, and Lahore no Perugia.  The outrage over the affair is underwritten by a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of Pakistan and of US-Pakistan relations by extension.  Until that is cleared up, expect affairs like this one to continue to sow confusion.

UPDATE: this week’s Economist has an excellent piece on this difficult subject.

In other news of foreign periodicals reporting on America’s overseas doings: this week’s l‘Espresso continues to mine the old leftist anti-American vein by putting the unlikely combination of Lega Nord’s Bossi and finance minister Tremonti in a prominent advertisement, telling readers that the embassy cables show that the US government fears the former for his distrust of immigration and the latter for his distaste for globalization.  It’s an interesting move; perhaps l’Espresso is trying to reach those old PCI voters who moved to LN as they watched their jobs get outsourced?  One thing is certain: they are selling more issues.

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