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Pakistan couldn't give Davis immunity even

if it wanted to

By Imtiaz Gul

Foreign Policy, Februrary 23, 2011

The diplomatic and political saga surrounding the arrest of American intelligence contractor Raymond Davis last month demonstrates clearly the polarization within the Pakistani society. This divide became apparent following an extremely damaging press conference by former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Feb.16, when Qureshi declared in unequivocal terms that Davis had no diplomatic accreditation with the ministry of foreign affairs -- a primary requisite for entitlement to immunity.

The night before the press conference, Qureshi had a terse meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and other cabinet colleagues. Almost all wanted him to recognize Davis as a diplomat, and thus avoid a more serious crisis with the United States. Even Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani pleaded with Qureshi to acquiesce.

But the soft-spoken Qureshi refused to budge for two reasons. First, Pakistani intelligence information found Davis is involved in activities "inconsistent with the status of a U.S. national." And second, an internal high-level meeting at the foreign ministry, headed by Qureshi on Jan. 28 (held on the same day that the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter asked for consular access to Davis and asked Qureshi to certify his immunity), concluded that Raymond Davis did not qualify for diplomatic immunity, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting

Two days later, an inter-ministerial meeting -- with senior officials from the foreign and home ministry as well as the military establishment -- also reached the same conclusions about Davis, tying Qureshi's hands and making accommodation politically impossible. Even a phone call from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requesting that Davis be certified as a diplomat could not change the situation; the consensus among the civilian and military bureaucracy had left Qureshi with no choice but to turn down Clinton's request. According to sources, he even cancelled his trip to a major security conference in Munich, Germany earlier this month to avoid meeting with Clinton.

Even former senior diplomats, such one-time Foreign Minister Riaz Khokhar and former ambassador to the United States Tariq Fatemi agreed with the conclusion of the inter-ministerial meeting, and thus sealed the internal consensus on Davis. Qureshi allegedly told friends afterwards that he chose to stand up for a principle at the risk of being dumped from the cabinet. And President Zardari did dump him.

Present for this discussion were several leading journalists, radio personalities and television anchors. Most of these media representatives supported a quick settlement of the issue, suggesting that as Pakistan is the recipient of enormous amounts of U.S. aid, it should perhaps desist from talking about high-minded principles at the possible cost of future support for the Pakistani government.

But the hardliners within the military and civilian bureaucracy, as well as more nationalist figures within the media snubbed this more moderate, despite the objections of others within the military and foreign ministry bureaucracies. For these hardliners, Davis represented the U.S. intelligence apparatus and if found guilty of involvement in activities inconsistent with his status, deserved prosecution rather than immunity.

The revelations over the status of Davis as a CIA employee have clearly exacerbated the dilemna the Zardari government faces today - to appease Washington or risk unleashing popular fury if Davis is freed.

Prime Minister Gilani told the national parliament Tuesday it is up to the courts to decide Davis' fate, but Gilani has considerably less room to maneuver following the reports on Davis's identity, as well as his alleged connections with Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater.

Over the years, Blackwater has become synonymous in Pakistani gossip and rumor with alleged secret U.S. missions inside Pakistan. Whispers of Blackwater involvement emerge, for instance, the moment Americans rent homes or office spaces in cities such as Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi.

The CIA, too, is widely resented for its use of drone strikes against militants in Pakistan's Waziristan tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan, and many Pakistanis believe that both the CIA and Blackwater are working together to destabilize Pakistan as a prelude to seizing its nuclear weapons. These suspicions are widespread, despite the absence of evidence to support them.

And the Davis case will only continue to isolate the government; all factions of the centrist Pakistan Muslim League - including the one led by former premier Nawaz Sharif, as well as the entire right-wing coterie of religio-political parties - are gunning for Raymond Davis. They want the judicial process, that resumes Friday, to takes its course and deny Davis immunity.

The government, facing a crushing economic crisis and a raging militancy perpetrated by radical groups, is desperate for a quick resolution of this issue in order to be able to ensure a steady stream of U.S. economic and military aid, which will be a key source of finances for the next fiscal year that begins in July.

Rather than allowing some sort of cool-down period (following the three deaths on Jan. 27) Washington exacerbated the already contentious issue by immediately and strongly invoking diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention and indulging in hasty, intimidating demands for Davis' release.

An over-eager Pakistani government, on the other hand, stoked the hostile environment for itself by promising to extricate Davis sooner rather than later, something signaled by the firing of Qureshi.

The entire episode has further worsened already tense emotions and will likely enrage many Pakistanis if a successful shortcut is found for Davis' release. Such a move could further accentuate an already severe crisis situation for the government, which is already widely regarded as an extension of the United States by the hard-line segments of the Pakistani society. For now, it seems to be a test of nerves of the Zardari-led government and the army-led nationalist elements in Pakistan. The Raymond Davis case is stretching them both as the Americans continue to push hard to free their man in Lahore.

The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk