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The myopia continues

February 18, 2011

EVENTS, dear boy, events. Would that the American and Pakistani governments had taken to heart the apocryphal advice of Harold Macmillan. When Raymond Davis preposterously shot to death two Pakistani youths in broad daylight in downtown Lahore and a rescue vehicle crushed to death a third Pakistani, the two governments did what they do best: they screwed up.

And that opened the door for everyone else to take advantage.

Sure, everyone is publicly and very gravely focusing on the legal minutiae — and for Raymond Davis that’s all that matters — but privately everyone understands the political gains this unwelcome incident is being mined for.

First things first, though. Whatever the letter of the law, national or international, it is a bad idea to pump two boys full of bullets in broad daylight in a busy part of Pakistan’s second-largest city. Period. And if you happen to be an American national, it’s a downright terrible idea. Double period.

The alacrity shown by the Punjab police/government in getting the judicial wheels to turn was also remarkable. Would that the provincial authorities demonstrated such alertness when dealing with mere mortals.

But what’s done is done. The bumbling response of the American and Pakistani governments in the immediate aftermath definitely helped worsen the situation.

It beggars belief that Davis’s immunity can be the subject of such uncertainty. If he has full immunity, the government should have swallowed the bitter pill, released him and dealt with the political fallout at home quickly. If Davis doesn’t have full immunity, then this trigger-happy American’s actions have led to the death of three Pakistanis. Let him go to court and defend his actions.

It’s a bit of a no-brainer, but this government doesn’t exactly excel in the brains department. And contradictory statements from the Americans didn’t help matters either.

Where does that leave us now, though?

Well, no less a person than the American president has weighed in on what he thinks ought to be the fate of a piddling employee/contractor of the American government.

Whatever spurred those comments — he was asked a question rather than made a prepared statement — you can be sure the weight and might of the American state machinery will press very, very hard to ensure their president isn’t embarrassed by the self-righteous defiance of some judges and a few politicians in a country surviving on American handouts.

The Americans want their guy back and, by golly, they seem bent on getting their way. Which leaves our response.

By now the cat is out of the bag. When the interior minister, the ex-foreign minister and the all-powerful spy chief met to decide the fate of Raymond Davis, two of those gents were of the opinion that Davis doesn’t enjoy ‘full immunity’.

One of those two has now been fired by Zardari. The other, well, if Zardari tried to fire him, the president might find himself out of a job first.

Which leaves the obvious question: once the government had, surprise, surprise, screwed up, what did the self-appointed custodians of the national interest make of the situation?

Forget all that mishegoss about Vienna conventions and legal minutiae and the like. In its dealings with the US over the past decade, the security establishment’s concern for the letter of the law has been, at best, patchy.

Tongues are wagging in Islamabad that the calculus would have been far simpler: through a stroke of luck, the Pakistani state now has something the Americans desperately want back — Raymond Davis — so what will the Americans be willing to give in return?

The Davis incident has come at a time when by all accounts relations between the US and Pakistan were growing more tense, and worse was expected in the months ahead. All manner of American pressure was expected to be put on Pakistan to further US counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency goals in this country and across the border in Afghanistan.

Some believe the contours of the security establishment’s response had become visible in recent months: discreetly and indirectly encourage anti-American sentiment in the country as a bulwark against American pressure. If/when the Americans leaned too heavily on the security establishment here, the generals would be able to turn around and say, we can’t do what you want, the people won’t let us.

But long after Raymond Davis is back home in the US, hawking his talents in the lucrative private sector there, we here in Pakistan will still be stuck with the fallout.

The security establishment seems to view extremist sentiment like a faucet: turn it off, turn it on, leave it half open, depending on the need of the hour. But in the real world it doesn’t quite work like that.

Once released into society, the poison lingers on, its pernicious effects revealed years and maybe even decades later. Kind of what Pakistan looks like today, 30 years since Zia tried to Islamise this unfortunate land and her luckless people.

The recent evidence is just as harrowing. Hafiz Saeed was trotted out in support of the blasphemy laws, and everyone knows what that fire ended up consuming. Now the right-wing is up in arms again, demanding the head of Raymond Davis, arguing for a swap with Aafia Siddiqui, crying out for the lives of Pakistanis to be treated at par with American lives — with the security establishment passively looking on, possibly counting the benefits.

Who knows, the arrogant Americans may or may not get their way on Raymond Davis. The security establishment may or may not be able to wrest some compromises from the US in return for facilitating the release of Davis.

But Pakistani society will be uglier, more intolerant and a little more vicious as a result — and that surely cannot be worth whatever the short-term tactical advantage which may or may not be gained.

The writer is a member of staff. cyril.a@gmail.com