The “sound and fury” of U.S.-Pakistan ties

March 17, 2011

rayjmonddavisphotoWith the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, the United States and Pakistan have put behind them one of the more public rows of their up-and-down relationship.  It was probably not the worst row — remember the furore over a raid by U.S. ground troops in Angor Adda in Waziristan in 2008, itself preceded  by a deluge of leaks to the U.S. media about the alleged duplicity of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in its dealings on Afghanistan.

But it was certainly one which by its very nature was guaranteed to get the most attention – an American who shot dead two Pakistanis in what he said was an act of self-defence, denied diplomatic immunity and ultimately released only after the payment of blood money. Adding to the drama were two intelligence agencies battling behind the scenes.

It was also the first serious row since the Obama administration began to build what it promised would be a new strategic relationship with Pakistan.

As I wrote earlier this month, overall relations between the United States and Pakistan were rather better than they looked (or at least than they appeared at the height of the Davis row).  Compared to two years ago, Pakistan is more likely to talk now about the need for stability in Afghanistan than strategic depth (the extent of this shift is open to debate). The United States has also moved closer towards meeting Pakistan’s calls for a political settlement in Afghanistan by holding direct talks with representatives of the Taliban, according to several official sources with knowledge of those contacts.

On the subject of Taliban talks, the New York Times noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a speech to the Asia Society last month, “appeared to recast longstanding preconditions for talks: that the insurgents lay down their arms, accept the Afghan Constitution and separate from Al Qaeda. Instead, she described them as ‘necessary outcomes’. ”

According to the NYT, “officially, the State Department played down the change in language, but a senior Western diplomat in Washington, who was familiar with the strategy behind Mrs. Clinton’s speech, said: ‘It was not intentional to explicitly make preconditions into outcomes. But the text now leaves room for interpretation, which opens doors.’”

The other half of that story is to look at who first suggested that the United States focus on outcomes rather than preconditions for talks  – Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, who wrote a detailed letter to President Barack Obama last year outlining how he saw the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That kind of concordance is hardly the stuff of a relationship on the rocks, notwithstanding the known irritants between the two countries, and the very specific peculiarities of the shooting which led to Davis’s arrest (the full details of which we may never know).

That said, the row has highlighted the volatility of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan and the very different ways in which they negotiate.  (Before the next row flares up, a  new book on “How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States” by Teresita and Howard Schaffer looks like it ought to be compulsory reading.)

The brisk diplomacy of the Americans is ill-matched with the prickliness of Pakistanis who fret that their relationship with the United States is more transactional than strategic.  A country that has been demanding to be treated with respect and its own interests be fully taken into account, as Pakistan has, is unlikely to be railroaded into agreeing a solution in space of a few meetings – even though the possibility of resolving the Davis row through payment of compensation to the relatives had reportedly been on the table for weeks.

And the sheer volume of noise which tends to accompany every row in Pakistan — which in the Davis case included street protests, angry clerics and right-wing media commentators demanding that he be hanged — would have been very bewildering to many westerners.  I was somewhat bemused at the extent to which that volume of noise seemed to feed into perceptions of the Davis row, since at least in the 10 years I’ve followed South Asia, it has always been like that, and it has never in the past stopped solutions from being reached underneath the radar.

The risk, however, is that the very public airing of dirty linen severely damages perceptions in the United States, with legislators and the general public wondering why American taxpayers should be giving money to a country whose people appear to dislike them so much.   The consequence could be that even if top officials the two countries manage to narrow their differences - as appears to have happened over Taliban talks – the political space in the United States for supporting a strategic relationship with  Pakistan narrows considerably.

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