How to spend billions and not make friends

Raymond-Davis-LahoreIf it were fictional, the Raymond Davis saga would have had a shot for best original screenplay. This one had it all — shootouts, car chases, duplicitous allies and one humdinger of a courtroom climax.

The bare bones of the Davis episode are well known. On January 27, 2011, a man subsequently identifying himself as Raymond Davis shot and killed two men at a busy intersection in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city. After shooting the two men, Davis emerged from his car and filmed their bodies with his cell phone. He then got back into his car and tried to drive away. However, in an unusual display of efficiency, he was chased and arrested by two traffic wardens. A separate vehicle then tried to assist Davis but in the process ran over and killed a motorcyclist.

In his initial interrogation, Davis stated first that he had acted in self-defence and second that he was a contractor employed by the U.S. Consulate in Lahore. The subsequent statement was particularly important because applicable diplomatic conventions distinguish between the limited immunity of consular officials as opposed to the absolute immunity enjoyed by embassy officials on duty. This statement was then corroborated by Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley who also added the mysterious rider that “reports identifying the employee’s name are false.”

There onwards, the issue snowballed. To begin with, the autopsy report for the two alleged killers apparently showed that they had been shot at a distance of up to 50 feet by 9mm rounds, with some of the shots striking the alleged assailants in the back. In other words, medical evidence indicated that Davis was an expert marksman who had used deadly force to kill people, one of which was 50 feet away at the moment of his death and probably running away to save his life. The next revelation came when a local newspaper claimed that the two alleged assailants were not just run of the mill hit-and-grab thugs but intelligence operatives overtly tailing Davis. This was subsequently denied by the ISI, Pakistan’s feared spy agency. In the meantime, Davis’s resume turned out to include a stint as a special forces soldier. More importantly, it emerged that not only had he been employed in the past by Xe Services (a.k.a Blackwater) but that he was currently in the employ of the CIA.

Not surprisingly, these revelations produced a media storm in Pakistan. Our community of journalists is conspiracy-minded at the best of times: for them, the indubitable fact that a gun-toting American had shot and killed two locals in broad daylight before causing the reckless death of another was confirmation of every paranoid fantasy. The geo-political issues were also overlaid with additional tragedy: the wife of one of the men killed by Davis committed suicide by swallowing insecticide. As she lay dying in a government hospital, her last words to the gathered media were that she did not believe the killer of her husband would ever be brought to justice.

Under applicable law, the Pakistani government had the simple option of declaring that Davis has diplomatic immunity. However, any such step would have come at a heavy political price since it would be seen, with considerable justification, as kow-towing to U.S. pressure. In recognition of this fact, the PPP government sought to temporise but that only caused both sides to increase the pressure. The US apparently attempted to procure immunity for Davis by threatening to cut off aid. There was also a story in the US press (subsequently denied) about expelling the Pakistani ambassador. The opposition in Pakistan in turn accused the government of secretly conspiring to release Davis, a charge given increased credence by the sacking of Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister who then held a press conference strongly implying that his departure was due to his opposing immunity for Davis.

Given this potential minefield of complications, the Pakistani government decided that at least for the purposes of public consumption, discretion was the better part of valour. It therefore refused to take a firm stance on the immunity question, saying it was up to the courts to decide. In the meantime, the Pakistani government and the US began to explore alternate options to resolve the situation. Since Pakistani law allows for the heirs of a murder victim to forgive his killers in exchange for payment of blood money, a simple trade of money for forgiveness appeared to be the best option. Lo and behold, this is what happened. On 16 March 2011, the news broke that a $1.4 million deal had been reached between Davis and the heirs of the deceased. In a late-night hearing, a judge quickly recorded the compromise and sentenced Davis to the exact time already served by him in prison with respect to the charges of carrying an unlicensed firearm. Davis flew out the same day while the heirs fled to other cities within Pakistan to avoid media scrutiny (as well as the possibility of disappointed militants expressing their frustration in more violent ways).

Analysis in the Western media of the Davis imbroglio focused on the rupture it had caused in Pakistan’s typically fraught relations with the United States. The refusal of Pakistan’s government to certify immunity for Davis was portrayed as yet more proof of the essentially duplicitous nature of Pakistan, an ally in name which begs for money with one hand but stabs the US with the other. Underlying this analysis was the unspoken assertion that given the overall level of assistance being provided by the US, Pakistanis should have overlooked the facts on record, even if they were unusually egregious.

Despite its explosive nature, the Davis saga remained of little interest to the general public in the West. All of this changed on May 2, 2011 when the world woke up to find that Osama Bin Ladin had been found – and killed – by a team of US special forces in Abbottabad, a pleasant town known primarily for housing Pakistan’s premier military training institution, the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul.

The rumblings of discontent which began after the Davis affair suddenly expanded to a cacophony. So far as the average American was concerned, Osama Bin Ladin had been living in Pakistan under a giant neon sign saying “OBL wuz here.” Or as Jon Stewart put it in a memorable episode of the Daily Show, Pakistan could have caught Osama with a rod and reel. Nor was Stewart the only comedian to find grist for his mill in the discovery of Osama. Jay Leno joked that the newly married Prince William and his bride were thinking of going to Abbottabad to get some quiet time while cartoonists had a field day.

Since the initial surge in coverage, some sanity seems to have prevailed upon the Western media which has now conceded that (a) Abbottabad is three hours away by car from Islamabad (and not a suburb of our capital) (b) Osama’s hideout was not a million-dollar mansion and (c) that it was 15 minutes away by car from the Pakistan Military Academy (and not across the road). In addition, both Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defence, and Hilary Clinton, the Secretary of State, have since publicly stated that there is no evidence to show that any senior officials within the Pakistan government were aware of Osama’s whereabouts and that there is in fact, some evidence to the contrary. But in terms of Western public perception, the image of Pakistan as a back-stabbing, ungrateful nation of terrorists has taken firm hold. And if there is one argument which seals that perception, it is that the US has rained billions of aid dollars on Pakistan, all to no avail. One cartoon summarised Pakistan’s relationship with the US as “you scratch my back, I’ll stab yours.”

I am no expert on geo-politics and the US-Pakistan relationship is complicated enough to keep a whole tribe of analysts busy for the rest of their academic lives. Instead, the simple point being advanced is that more than 10 years after 9/11 reignited the US/Pakistan love-hate relationship, there is some logical basis for the fact that the ordinary Pakistani sees plenty of reasons to hate the US and very few to appreciate it.

Trying to explain why most Pakistanis look askance at the United States is difficult. To begin with, there is a widespread belief that the United States is at best a fair-weather friend as shown by the manner in which the US “abandoned” Pakistan after the Russians quit Afghanistan. The validity of this allegation has been acknowledged by several U.S officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There is also a sizable community convinced that the US is secretly planning to take over Pakistan and destroy its nuclear assets. Their views are supported with reference to loose talk in Washington fora about Pakistani nukes possibly falling into the wrong hands (and the ambitious schemes to stop such possibilities). These potentially valid grounds for anti-Americanism are then layered on top of less rational arguments fuelled, to name a few, by (a) doctrinaire leftist dogma left over from Pakistan’s fling with socialism in the 70s (b) jingoistic nationalism peddled by the Army and its sympathisers; and, (c) the well-known fact that the US is an oil-obsessed, Muslim-hating, Great Satan secretly ruled by a cabal of one-eyed Jewish financiers (or something like that) .

However, even outside the realm of popular hysteria, there are valid reasons why the average Pakistan is not enamoured of the United States. After Iraq and Afghanistan, the largest number of civilian casualties in the Great War on terror have been Pakistanis. Between 2001 and 2009, there were hundreds of terrorist attacks in Pakistan causing a total of 30,475 casualties (which figure includes both civilians and soldiers). Yes, Pakistanis now acknowledge that this is their war too. But, they also believe (with some reason) that if the U.S. was to pack up and leave Afghanistan, Pakistan would be a better and safer place.

On the other side of the relationship, Pakistan’s importance to solving the Afghanistan quagmire has been well recognised for many years. Bob Woodward’s last book, “Obama’s Wars” details how in November 2008, the newly elected President was informed by his advisors that the key to dealing with Afghanistan was to get Pakistan on board. In short, the US has known for many years that it needs to win over the hearts and minds of Pakistanis if it is to have any plausible exit out of an increasingly expensive and interminable war. To that end, the US has spent very large amounts of money. The point I am making is that this money has been wasted.

To begin with, the largest portion of cash flows from the US government to Pakistan consist of either direct budgetary support to Pakistan’s finance ministry or payments to the Pakistan Army. However, Pakistanis do not identify strongly with either their political masters or their army: both are instead seen simply as unpleasant and unavoidable facts of life. If US budgetary support for the Pakistani government resulted in any tangible benefit to Pakistanis, they might feel differently. However, the Pakistani government is both incompetent and corrupt. The average Pakistani thus feels no reason to be grateful for it (irrespective of the fact that things might even be worse without US assistance). Similarly, the fact that the US government buys toys for the boys does not give the average Pakistani a warm cuddly feeling.

Furthermore, even so far as development projects are concerned, the vast majority of US development assistance to Pakistan has till date been spent on low visibility service-oriented projects as opposed to high-visibility capital intensive projects. Click on the USAID website for Pakistan and one is confronted by a long list containing mostly “training” sessions and a number of small grants to various charities and NGOs. In actual practice, the training projects amount to well paid sabbaticals for imported experts while the smaller projects simply get lost in the immensity of Pakistan’s population of 185 million people. The net result is that unless one has been fortunate enough to be touched directly, US aid to Pakistan may as well not exist.

The irony here is that this point does seem to have seeped into the minds of the mandarins at Foggy Bottom as well. Thanks in part to the efforts of the late Richard Holbrooke, USAID policy towards Pakistan was revised in 2010 to reorient efforts towards “high impact, high visibility infrastructure programs.” However, while some such projects are in the pipeline, none of them has yet to make headlines. Moreover, even the projects in the pipeline do not qualify for flagship status, similar in impact to the F-16 fighters supplied to the Pakistan Air Force.

The irony though is that the revised aid model adopted by the US may well be too late. As shown by the recent House resolution on Libya, the American public’s appetite for war is waning fast. Furthermore, as was evident from the scenes of celebration outside the White House, the death of Bin Ladin provided not only some sort of catharsis to the American public but also a “mission accomplished” type sense of closure. At the same time, the relationship between Pakistan and the United States is such that neither can afford to break off relations with the other, even when the United States withdraws all troops from Afghanistan (and certainly not before that). Pakistan-US relations will therefore continue to be both delicate and important. And within that context, it makes sense for the US to utilise its options and its assets so as to maximise its goodwill amongst the public, rather than simply continuing to waste money.

The point of this column is not to argue that Pakistan deserves US support or US aid. Instead, the point of this column is to note that assuming the US is going to be giving aid to Pakistan and assuming the US would like a greater reservoir of goodwill amongst the Pakistani public, it would do well to help fund high-visibility projects of the type now being discussed rather than continuing to pamper an already bloated military sector. Pakistan is not just an army with a vestigial state attached: it is a nation of 185 million people, some of whom happen to be in the army. And it would be good for both the US and Pakistan if the US realised this.