Why Pakistan Is in No Mood to Back Down in U.S. Showdown

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Raymond Davis, meet Aaron DeHaven. Davis is the U.S. diplomat — or alleged CIA contractor, depending on which account you believe — arraigned on murder charges in Lahore, with Pakistan thus far unmoved by his claim of diplomatic immunity following a shooting incident that left two Pakistanis dead. DeHaven is a security contractor reportedly arrested in Peshawar Friday for being in country on an expired visa. “They need come clean, tell us who they are and what they are doing,” a senior official of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, speaking of his U.S. counterparts in the CIA. “They need to stop doing things behind our back.” The official told the paper the ISI believed there were “two or three score” U.S. covert operatives at work in Pakistan, and made clear that Pakistani security establishment was not going to tolerate that.

Despite the formal alliance and a high degree of cooperation against al-Qaeda and other militant groups, there’s a also high degree of mutual mistrust between U.S. and Pakistani intelligence: The Americans are frustrated by Pakistan’s refusal to act against Afghan insurgent groups who use Pakistani territory as a base from which to attack NATO forces across the border; the Pakistanis seek a different outcome in Afghanistan to secure their own interests, fear the U.S. intends to strip Pakistan of its nuclear deterrent, and face a public in which fierce anti-American sentiment is a rare point of national consensus. So, while U.S. officials try to convince Pakistani securocrats that their survival requires fighting the Taliban, the dominant view in the Pakistani security establishment has been that Pakistan’s domestic troubles have been provoked by the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the demands it placed on Pakistan — and that stability will be restored to Pakistan only after the US withdraws from Afghanistan.

At a secret meeting in Oman this week between a U.S. delegation headed by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and a Pakistani team lead by army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the Pakistanis were warned, according to one Pakistani account, that “once beyond a tipping point the situation would be taken over by political forces that could not be controlled”, adding that “the US did not want the U.S.-Pakistan relationship to go into a free fall under media and domestic pressures.”

The problem is, that may already have happened on the Pakistani side, where support for prosecuting Davis for murder has become a rallying point for all political parties opposed to the fragile government of the pro-U.S. president Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari reportedly  pleaded with his own foreign ministry to recognize Davis’ claim to diplomatic immunity, but Imtiaz Gul reports that this was made impossible by the security services’ conclusion that Davis had been engaged in activities not consistent with diplomatic status.

DeHaven’s arrest suggests the covert battle of wills between the Pakistani security establishment and the U.S. intelligence community may even be escalating. Some Pakistani officials reportedly see the resumption of drone strikes in Waziristan over the past week as a warning from Washington that the U.S. will continue to operate against its enemies on Pakistani soil. The drone operations have been traditionally undertaken with a nod and a wink by Pakistani authorities, although there had been a three-week lull before this week. The strikes are highly unpopular in Pakistan — and the ISI can’t be seen to be doing Washington’s bidding. That may be one reason Davis was denied diplomatic immunity, although some have suggested that the two men he is accused of shooting in Lahore may have been tailing him on behalf of the ISI.

Whatever the identity of the victims, however, the Davis case has become a lightning rod for toxic anti-American sentiment that will make it difficult for the government to recommend setting him free when it delivers its final verdict on the immunity claim on March 14.

But the Davis case is simply a symptom of a wider breakdown: The idea that Pakistan would be willing to do Washington’s bidding in its own backyard in Afghanistan was a short-lived fantasy; so, too, the U.S. insistence that it’s in Pakistan’s own interests to take down the Taliban. It’s always been plain as day that Pakistan’s ruling security establishment sees its interests as quite different from those of the United States, and that when the chips are down, Pakistan goes its own way. That realization has prompted the U.S. to adopt a more assertive position about going after its own enemies on Pakistani turf, a scenario the Pakistani security establishment appears to find increasingly intolerable.

Pakistan has pursued a policy on Afghanistan independent of and sometimes at odds with that of the U.S. throughout the past decade, and as the conflict in that country enters its endgame, so too is the independence of Pakistani action there likely to increase. And with it will grow the tensions of which the Davis case is but a symptom.