Regardless of the circumstances that prompted Mr. Davis to kill two Pakistanis, the episode blew the lid off covert American operations in a country that was awash with rumors about the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency and its private contractors. For the majority of Pakistanis, particularly the religious-political right as well as hardliners within the security apparatus, the Davis case proved what they had long suspected: Americans are a rogue force within Pakistan.
Most Pakistanis already viewed the CIA with skepticism. The agency is extremely unpopular for its use of drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal lands bordering Afghanistan. Many Pakistanis also believe that both the CIA and its private contractors are trying to coerce Pakistan by sponsoring attacks on targets such as Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) installations or police stations.
This may seem far-fetched, but the fear has some basis in reality. In his book “Obama’s Wars,” Bob Woodward revealed the existence of a secret 3,000-strong army of paramilitary Afghan fighters created by the CIA to target Taliban and al Qaeda commanders inside Pakistan through “false flag attacks.”
Mr. Davis’s alleged links with Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater, further aggravated the situation. Blackwater is synonymous in Pakistani gossip with secret U.S. missions inside the country. Whispers of Blackwater involvement emerge, for instance, the moment Americans rent homes or office space in cities such as Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi.
Within days, the American insistence on Mr. Davis’s diplomatic immunity and incessant demands for his release, including the one from U.S. President Barack Obama himself, polarized Pakistanis like never before. The majority demanded that Mr. Davis stand trial for murdering two Pakistanis in broad daylight.
As the government of President Asif Ali Zardari sought a way out without further enraging the public, the American administration only fueled the fire with its insistence that Mr. Davis enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Mr. Davis was not on a list of diplomatic and non-diplomatic staff that the U.S. Embassy submitted to the Pakistani Foreign Office on Jan. 25. A revised list provided a day after the incident did contain Mr. Davis’s name.
The issue of whether to accept this post-facto immunity divided the government and eventually cost Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi his post. He was hamstrung by a consensus among the civilian and military bureaucracy, backed up by retired diplomatic stalwarts like Ambassadors Riaz Khokhar and Tariq Fatemi, that Mr. Davis was not eligible for immunity. This consensus made it impossible for Mr. Qureshi to grant the request of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The American bending of diplomatic rules caused even greater outrage and stiffened the resolve within parts of the government to prosecute Mr. Davis for activities inconsistent with his status, as well as murder. Not surprisingly, the issue took the blogosphere by storm, prompting prominent columnists, writers and academics to vent their views on the lack of transparency in the Pakistan-U.S. relationship and the Americans’ ability to operate above the law.
Now that Mr. Davis is out of the country and a trial avoided, Washington and Islamabad face a formidable challenge: how to rehabilitate America in the eyes of Pakistanis. The insistence on diplomatic immunity represented a clear case of selective morality on the part of the Obama administration. A state that claims to champion the rule of law and accuses others of subverting international conventions tried to invoke the Vienna Convention on behalf of a mercenary.
Even moderate politicians like Fakhar Imam, a former president of the national legislature, are calling for a revision of the bilateral ties. “It has been a relationship of diminishing returns, geared towards the U.S. interests only,” Mr. Imam said during a private U.S.-Pakistan consultation in Islamabad. He went on to recall the human and material losses that Pakistan has endured as a member of the anti-terror coalition. What is worse, says Mr. Imam, “we are being paid back with accusations, mistrust and intimidation.”
For years, American officials heaped scorn on Pakistan, accusing it of double dealing in the war against terrorism. They used a string of leaks planted in the U.S. media to highlight their frustration and mistrust of Islamabad, particularly the ISI. Now the U.S. has been caught in its own double dealing and has lost the moral high ground. It will have to abandon its heavy-handed approach in Pakistan if it wants to make the partnership work.