Hearts & minds campaign?

Feb 13 2011

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OFFICIAL quarters in Islamabad claim with a straight face that the Raymond Allen Davis case is not an insurmountable challenge in Pakistan’s relations with the US. They say that the bilateral equation is strong enough to withstand the jolts of this controversy.

The time to evaluate the impact of this issue on the vital strategic relationship between the two countries will come later. But at least in one significant respect, Pakistan-US ties are already badly damaged. And this relates to the nature and direction of public discourse in Pakistan about the United States.

The Davis issue has disfigured the environment in which the strategic partnership with the US was being nurtured. Raymond Davis endorses the typical Pakistani image of the US as a trigger-happy bully. In popular perception, Davis is the personification of a policy conduct Washington has displayed all around since 9/11 at a much larger scale — from the sands of Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan and in the Fata region.

In this context, the general eye in Pakistan perceives Washington’s demand for immunity for Davis’s actions as akin to audacious American actions against Muslim countries, where international law is stretched and distorted to defend invasions and destruction of Muslim homelands in the name of countering terrorism.

The uncontrollable outrage that creeps into every discussion about the possibility of setting Davis free is not just because the information trickling about his activities in Pakistan is completely scandalous bordering on the seditious.

It is in part a reaction to the murder and mayhem in Mazang. In part it is now also because of the tragic suicide of the widow of one of the victims of Davis’s precision shooting. The plight of the deceased widow has sown the seeds of grief and anger in the hearts of even housewives.

The demand for punishment for Davis is no longer a subject of conversation of macho nationalists or media sensationalists. The homes of ordinary folk too are alight with fiery commentary at the mere mention of the name of the former US military man, who has had special warfare training at Fort Bragg.

This nationwide welling up of anti-US emotion pushes further down the already declining US ratings in Pakistan. This is major damage to the ‘hearts and minds’ outreach programme that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been spearheading to fashion a better image for her country in Pakistan.

The policy worked at three levels: promotion of goods and services that the US brings to Pakistan; dilution of criticism of Washington’s policies by a robust media policy of rebuttals, denials and counter-charges; and isolation of those organisations and individuals whose sense of reality did not conform to Washington’s interest in Pakistan.

Admittedly, this policy worked rather well. The voice of America in Pakistan got considerably amplified, thanks primarily, though not only, to well-planned vigorous pro-US media activity carried out by known native advocates of Washington’s interests.

To change negative publicity into a positive profile, Washington carried out vast and constant diplomatic engagement with the politicians and the military top brass alike. Statistics show that in the last year and a half, Pakistan has been the US officials’ most ‘visited’ country in the world.

These visits on the one hand underscored Pakistan’s strategic importance and on the other served the valuable purpose of showing US in the bright light of a ‘trustworthy’ country that is fair and square in its dealings with Pakistan. By the time Ms Clinton had conducted her second round in Pakistan last year, the situation had started to improve. Upon her return home, she reported “visible changes in public mood”. Later, building on this happy new ground, US diplomats artfully scripted Washington’s aid measures for Pakistan’s flood victims and got some palpable PR points from the relief efforts.

How many hearts and minds exactly turned in Washington’s favour, we don’t know. Perhaps not many. But something did change. Thorny controversies that once defined public discourse on the US disappeared into thin air. Towards the end of 2010 and on the eve of 2011 not a whisper was heard about the presence of Blackwater in Pakistan, expansion of US embassy premises, unauthorised and suspicious movement of US diplomats and embassy personnel. Even the matter of granting visas to US officials became a non-issue. The Kerry Lugar Bill’s preconditions for getting aid were totally forgotten.

But then came Mr Davis with his Glock handgun taking Pakistani lives and shooting through the heart the hearts and minds campaign. Since then Washington’s public profile has been completely defiled.

The strategic communication regime Washington’s spin doctors had put in place to create an enabling environment for successful diplomacy — called propaganda in old times — is completely dysfunctional. The trust deficit in the realm of public diplomacy is as wide as never before.

This is long-term damage recovering from which would take much longer than settling the issue of diplomatic immunity.

We do not know what Davis’s real mission was, but he certainly performed one task of strategic scale: ruining whatever little hope public diplomacy campaigners might have had of convincing the simple folk of Pakistan that the US was just a friendly giant they had no reason to run away from.

The writer is senior anchor at DawnNews.