U.S.-Pakistan relations better than they look

March 3, 2011

raymond davisGiven the high-decibel volume of the row over Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore in January, it would be tempting to assume that overall relations between Pakistan and the United States are the worst they have been in years.

At a strategic level, however, there’s actually rather greater convergence of views than there has been for a very long time.

In a speech last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a step closer towards meeting Pakistan’s own call for a political settlement in Afghanistan through negotiations with Taliban insurgents which would force al Qaeda to leave the region. It was time, she said, “to get serious about a responsible reconciliation process, led by Afghans and supported by intense regional diplomacy and strong U.S.-backing.”

“Now, I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace,” she said.

Her speech coincided with a report that the United States had begun secret face-to-face talks with representatives of the Taliban for the first time since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Clinton also acknowledged Pakistan’s concerns about Indian influence in Afghanistan.  “We look to them – and all of Afghanistan’s neighbours – to respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty, which means agreeing not to play out their rivalries within its borders, and to support reconciliation and efforts to ensure that al-Qaida and the syndicate of terrorism is denied safe haven everywhere. Afghanistan, in turn, must not allow its territory to be used against others.” Her choice of language was unusual in that it equated both India and Pakistan — traditionally Islamabad has been condemned for unhelpful interference in Afghanistan, while New Delhi has insisted it is interested only in helping Afghan development.

Western officials also say they believe Pakistan, which once looked to use Afghanistan for “strategic depth” against India, has scaled back its ambitions into seeing stability there as an end itself. Pakistani officials have been saying for a while they would settle for a “stable” rather than “friendly” Afghanistan.

At a senior level, Pakistan and the United States have also built good working relations among their top officials — U.S. commanders met Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani in Oman last week in the latest of a series of meetings to build understanding between the two militaries.

I’m told that neither country wants the relationship to be completely derailed by the row over Davis, who Washington insists has diplomatic immunity from prosecution in Pakistan, an assertion contested by Islamabad.

That does not mean the row is not serious.  For the United States, any refusal to recognise what it sees as diplomatic immunity touches a raw nerve, evoking bad memories of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which continues to sour relations with Tehran to this day.  For Pakistan, the idea that an American CIA contractor might kill two Pakistanis with impunity (Davis says it was in self-defence) adds to its sense of being a bullied and subservient ally, rather than a respected partner.

In Pakistan, the media has whipped up anti-Americanism to fever pitch over the Davis case. The military establishment, and in particular the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, has been accused in the past of using the media to bolster its position in arguments with the United States.  And the ISI has been unusually public this time around in expressing its frustration with what has always been a tetchy relationship with the CIA.

In the United States, the row has intensifies doubts about Pakistan as a strategic partner — a relationship which many already find hard to understand. 

But it does mean that both are keen to find a solution.  One idea doing the rounds would be for  Pakistan to release Davis in return for a commitment that he be tried in the United States. Various other ideas are also being floated in the media, including payment of compensation to the families of the Pakistanis killed. “The idea is to find a solution whereby the Davis incident does not hijack the U.S.-Pakistan relationship,” The Cable quoted a senior Pakistani official as saying.

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