THE Raymond Davis saga has spiralled out of control from the perspective of the Pakistani and US governments. An analysis of the actions and reactions of the two sides since the shooting incident took place hints at several lessons for both.

Highlighting these is worthwhile; it may help manage future incidents more amicably.

Let me recap how the situation has evolved.

As soon as the news broke, the Washington machinery moved to exploit the behind-the-scenes comfort with certain individuals in the Pakistani government to secure Davis’s release. Direct contacts insisted that Davis must be set free. Within the Pakistani political leadership, there was a desire to oblige but they remained hesitant to commit to anything given that the media had picked up the story within minutes.

Yet, mixed signals were sent with at least one key individual in the civilian set-up guaranteeing a speedy release. The message from the Pakistani diplomatic presence in Washington was also mixed, and often contradictory.

Soon, hardball was being played through public channels as well. Diplomatic immunity was made the basis for a string of statements by US officials that suggested that Pakistan was knowingly violating its international commitments. The Pakistani government’s response to this was incoherent and ambivalent. Hedging its bets, the government never confirmed immunity but never denied it altogether either.

Next, handling of the street in Pakistan has never been the forte of either government and this episode turned out to be no exception. Throughout the initial period, while the US expressed empathy on a few occasions, no effort was made to make this the thrust of the message. It was not until Senator John Kerry’s visit to Pakistan that a major effort was made to adopt a conciliatory tone. Even that did not last.

The Pakistani government’s public stance was taken over by on-ground events. The police FIR led to initiation of legal proceedings. Once the courts were involved, the hedging strategy was never going to provide them a way out. The PPP leadership’s statements therefore gradually began to affirm that the legal mechanisms would be allowed to prevail and that no back-channel deals would be made.

Finally, important to note, the relevant institutions in Pakistan and the political enclave in Islamabad were not on the same page at any point. Institutionally, both within the security and diplomatic establishments, there has been little sympathy for the US position all along. In fact, the affair has initiated serious debate about the nature of US presence in Pakistan. There seems to be a conscious decision not to give in and there is reportedly even a hint of uncharacteristic bluntness with which this is being conveyed to the US counterparts.

A number of lessons can be deciphered; all underscore the need for more institutionalised dealings.

The most obvious take-home is the growing limitation of the government in Islamabad to keep the street sentiment out of track-I. No longer can the US expect the Pakistani government, especially a politically weak one, to deliver on sensitive issues as freely as it may have in the past. If anything, the Davis controversy will make the media even more sensitive to any smoking guns in the future.

In terms of policy correction, internalising the street sentiment requires no less than an overhaul of the way in which the two sides have dealt with each other since 9/11. Dealings will have to be much more transparent and worked through established institutional channels. Individuals and their comfort levels with counterparts on the other side may be able to deliver on minor concerns, but on sensitive issues such as the one under discussion, ad hoc decision-making may have run its course.

Consider the fragility of the present model: this one incident has led the Pakistani security and diplomatic establishments to re-examine fundamental questions about the nature, desire and need for expanded US presence in Pakistan. Reason: even though some of their principles may have authorised enlarged US diplomatic and contractor presence, the relevant institutions (as a whole) were never on board and thus never bought into the logic for such decisions. Result: as organisational theory would predict, the likely institutional reaction now would be to overcorrect. In this case, it would amount to tightening of screws on US presence in Pakistan with a possible counter reaction from Washington.

Lack of institutionalisation also implies growing dysfunctionality in the system overall. If individuals in positions of power circumvent their own state institutions on a regular basis, policies and strategies are liable to reflect a disconnect.

In Pakistan’s case, there are two anomalous nodes: (i) the military establishment’s dominant role in the bilateral relationship causes a civil-military disconnect in policy preferences; and (ii) within the civilian enclave, the political leadership’s propensity to deal directly with US officials rather than valuing institutional memory of organs such as the Foreign Office leaves the latter ineffective, and often in contradiction with the desires of individuals who matter.

Finally, in terms of lessons, a more institutionalised and relatively transparent framework would require new methods to manage controversies. Street sentiment is critical; therefore, winning the people over becomes an obvious target. The US will have to focus much more on a viable public diplomacy strategy in Pakistan.

Key to managing the sentiment would be the ability to show sensitivity to Pakistani norms, something the US has had a poor track record in over the past decade. For instance, a successful US response in the aftermath of the Davis episode required empathy to be the overriding message for the first week before any unpopular demand could be laid out in public. The concept does not come naturally to much of the Washington bureaucracy.

All this inevitably implies the need to tone down overall goals and expectations. Once the dealings are more formalised and transparent, the pace with which they can be processed will slow down and scrutiny will increase. The transformation will not be a painless one. Yet, it will make for a more honest, realistic and sustainable partnership.

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



Updated 21 May, 2022

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