For greater transparency

Published February 20, 2011

IN previous columns on Pakistan-US relations, I have often stressed the need for greater transparency in the partnership. Since 9/11, ties have been characterised by an active government-to-government relationship; very little of what happens behind closed doors is willingly brought out in the public domain.

The Raymond Davis episode is an interesting case study. It challenges the efficacy of how the two sides have chosen to conduct business.

The basis for the Pakistani and American governments choosing to keep this relationship opaque — the formulation, a deliberate one, lingers from the Musharraf-Bush era — was the belief that as long as the two governments continued to cooperate as agreed, they could achieve their objectives irrespective of the sentiment on the street. Taking the people on board was deemed unnecessary.

The Davis episode drives home the point that the formulation has outlived its utility. The framework has been upended by two developments: (i) the enhanced capacity and boldness of the Pakistani media to debate controversial issues, especially since their successful role in the lawyers' movement; and (ii) the fact that Pakistan is now in a phase of messy coalitional politics.

In the old formulation, one could have expected a quiet behind-the-scenes deal between Islamabad and Washington to secure Davis's release. Today, the context is altogether different. Within minutes of the shooting episode involving Davis, the media had picked up the story. All sorts of rumours about what had happened were being flashed. And before we knew it, the whole nature of the bilateral relationship had gotten tangled in the debate. The absence of credible information meant that even the most nefarious conclusions went unchallenged. Bottom line: within hours of the development, the opportunity for a quiet, tactical government-to-government deal had gone.

What has followed since is even more interesting.

The Pakistani media and street put forth a number of compelling questions. Given that officialdom is so used to opacity and providing piecemeal, inconsequential information, it continued to self-contradict, without producing too many credible answers. The primary public conclusions are: Davis is a spook; if he is not a diplomat, he does not enjoy immunity and should be taken to task; and if he is a diplomat, this proves the already pervasive sense that many Americans in Pakistan are clandestine operatives. A disaster all round from the perspective of a sustained partnership!

How does transparency fit in?

At the tactical level, if Davis has immunity, the paperwork should be produced in the open and the matter laid to rest. And if he does not, then in the interest of sustaining credible ties, both sides should answer the many questions floating around in Pakistan about why Davis was there, who authorised it, who did he actually shoot? And even more important would be transparency at the policy level: is Davis representative of American presence in Pakistan (as conspiracy theories claim); how many American diplomats are in Pakistan; what are the facts about private contractor presence; what other concessions have been accorded (e.g. drones); what is the rationale for all decisions/concessions?

Only by coming clean on these broad policy questions can the two governments hope to begin challenging popular misconceptions. And yes, this may mean some embarrassment in the short run but that would be a function of their past attempts at holding back information. Going ahead, as long as the two governments can explain the rationale of their decisions to their people and show how, in their view, it is in the national interest, over time, citizens will begin to realise the compulsions of the two governments and the need for them to continue working together. Lack of information produces the opposite result; everything becomes a conspiracy theory.

The second dimension to the episode is political. As soon as the news broke, coalitional politics was in play — to Davis's detriment. The PML-N sensed an opportunity to create a hype about the issue and got the street to amplify its populist stance, i.e. Davis' fate should be decided by the courts in Pakistan. The right-wing parties soon chimed in. Left on its own, between a rock and a hard place, was the PPP government. Otherwise probably happy to let Raymond Davis go to appease the US, it quickly realised that doing so would be politically suicidal. This, and not Musharraf's arbitrary decisions, however bold and efficient, is what the two sides will have to deal with in the times ahead.

Finally, the episode suggests just how ill-prepared the two governments are in conducting diplomacy if behind-the-scenes dealing fails on an issue.

Diplomacy around Raymond Davis has descended into an open arm-twisting exercise. Washington upped the ante by demanding Davis's immediate release and suggested that Pakistan was violating its international obligations. Important dialogues/meetings were cancelled.

The approach reflects a fundamental lack of understanding on how to work the Pakistani street — rule number one is that you never want to be seen as a bully by Pakistanis; the more the pressure, the less likely a favourable outcome.

The PPP government, on the other hand, is guilty of its customary mismanagement. Contradictory signals have emanated throughout, both for the Pakistani people and the US. To the people, the government wanted to test the waters by hinting that Davis may be granted immunity. The media never took the bait to begin with and then the strategy died a natural death when deposed foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi spilled the beans. To Washington, some ministers communicated that the job will be done while others requested that the government be given time. There was no answer to the counter-question from Washington: time for what?

To be sure, the Obama-Zardari context is fundamentally different than the Bush-Musharraf one. For this relationship to have any chance of long-term sustainability, policy decisions and mutually agreed choices will have to be much more transparent and better explained. Else, both sides would be better off giving up the pretence of trying to sustain ties over the long run — it simply won't work.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.

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