National Security Network

Averting a Diplomatic Crisis with Pakistan

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Report 16 February 2011

Pakistan Pakistan


Yesterday, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (D-MA), traveled to Pakistan to try to soothe relations between our two countries in order to prevent a rift over the arrest of a U.S. embassy employee from becoming a full blown diplomatic crisis. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is exercising a two-pronged strategy to secure the employee's release by publicly calling - in conciliatory language - for Pakistani adherence to its commitments to diplomatic immunity while exerting strong pressure behind the scenes for the employee's release.  At the same time, the administration is aware of the convulsions underway in Pakistani politics, where the government's entire cabinet was recently fired.  Thus the current approach is crucial, as supporting Pakistan's civilian government and avoiding any unnecessary moves that could weaken it is essential to U.S. national security interests. By remaining vigilant and respectful in its support for the embassy employee, the administration is keeping its eye on the bigger picture, which is that an effective American relationship with a stable civilian Pakistani government is preferable to the alternative.

U.S. -Pakistan relations grow tense while Pakistan undergoes significant political changes. Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have been strained by the arrest of embassy employee Raymond Davis. The Washington Post explains: "In court appearances in Lahore, Davis has said that he fired after the two Pakistan men approached him on a motorcycle and brandished a handgun in an apparent robbery attempt. U.S. and Pakistani authorities have offered conflicting accounts of the event. U.S. officials said Pakistani police reports indicate that Davis fired from inside his car while stopped at a traffic signal. But The Washington Post has obtained a police report in Pakistan that cites witness accounts that Davis also stepped out of the car and continued firing into the backs of the Pakistani men even as they fled." The event has elicited a statement from President Obama, as well as a visit from Sen. Kerry. Politico's Laura Rozen reports that, "President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he expects Pakistan to respect the diplomatic status of Raymond Davis, an American arrested in Lahore, Pakistan, last month for killing two people who were allegedly trying to rob him. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) arrived in Pakistan Tuesday to try to secure Davis's release. The United States has insisted that Davis, a government official, has diplomatic immunity, but a Pakistani court has said he should face murder charges and ordered him remanded until Feb. 25."

Meanwhile, Pakistan is in the midst of significant political changes. Earlier this month, Pakistan's ruling party authorized "Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to dissolve his cabinet amid demands by opposition parties for a smaller version, a party official said," according to AFP.  And last week, the New York Times reported that, "President Asif Ali Zardari swore in a new, smaller group of cabinet ministers on Friday in what the government described as ‘part of an austerity drive' to cut expenditures. Most of the 22 ministers sworn in Friday were from the president's Pakistan Peoples Party. The previous cabinet, made up of more than 60 ministers, state ministers and advisers, resigned this week. Critics called the step window dressing and said it would not be enough to win the confidence of international donors and the International Monetary Fund, which have been urging wide-ranging reforms to shore up the faltering economy." [Washington Post, 2/15/11. Laura Rozen, 2/15/11. AFP, 2/4/11. NY Times, 2/11/11]

Despite frustrations, continued American support for the Pakistani civilian government is in the U.S. interest. Sen. Kerry's visit to Pakistan was carefully calibrated to show high-level American concern and regret for the incident while also continuing to stand firm on the need for Pakistan to respect its commitments to diplomatic immunity. Kerry's conciliatory presence was backed with tough messages from President Obama and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon calling for Davis's release.  Behind the scenes, Donilon is reported to have threatened to expel Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani from the U.S. The goal of this two-part offensive is to allow the embattled civilian government in Pakistan to release Davis without provoking a nationalist backlash against the government, as supporting civilian governance in Pakistan remains in the U.S. interest. The U.S. supports Pakistan's civilian government by:

Providing civilian aid. The U.S. continues to support the civilian government via a massive civilian aid package, of which Sen. Kerry is the lead advocate. The Wall Street Journal reports, "Mr. Kerry... has made four trips to Pakistan in the past two years and was instrumental in co-writing in 2009 a five-year, $7.5 billion civilian aid package, part of a strategy to help counter Islamic radicalism in the country." To ensure its effectiveness, that aid package must be continually reevaluated. Implementation challenges clearly remain, as the Journal reported earlier this month a report from the inspector general of USAID that found, "One year after the launch of the civilian-assistance strategy in Pakistan, USAID has not been able to demonstrate measurable progress," citing an inability to recruit staff for in-country programs and a reluctance to send money through corrupt local governance structures. [WSJ, 2/16/11; 2/8/11]

Promoting economic reforms. In tandem with U.S. aid, the administration and the international community continue to urge Pakistan to undertake much-needed economic reforms. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton railed against the Pakistani elite last September about their refusal to pay high tax rates and enact broader economic reforms. "This is one of my pet peeves: Countries that will not tax their elites but expect us to come in and help them serve their people are just not going to get the kind of help from us that they have been getting," Secretary Clinton also told an audience at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition conference that "Pakistan cannot have a tax rate of 9 percent of GDP when land owners and all of the other elites do not pay anything or pay so little it's laughable, and then when there's a problem everybody expects the United States and others to come in and help." [Hillary Clinton, via the Cable, 9/28/10]

[AFP, 2/11/11]

The alternatives to working with a Pakistani civilian government are much worse. As the Atlantic Council put it: "Perhaps no bilateral relationship in the world matches that of the United States and Pakistan when it comes to its combustible combination of strategic importance and perilous instability." Combating that instability requires a focus on accountable democracy. Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Brian Katulis recently warned, "Without a more focused effort to create incentives for democratic reform in Pakistan, the United States risks providing a lifeline to a dysfunctional system of government that has not served its people and allowed extremism to metastasize."  

Engagement with Pakistan remains the best way to prevent such an outcome. A recent bipartisan Council on Foreign Relation "Pak-Af" task force chaired by Sandy Berger and Richard Armitage states that, "Engagement, partnership, and investment-with markers of progress-in support of common objectives are more apt to encourage desirable results." While it can be frustrating and challenging, engagement with Pakistan remains vital for U.S. interests and is frankly better than the alternative.  The CFR report also considers an alternative approach, which it finds to be much less desirable. "In Pakistan, Washington could turn away from its present emphasis on rewarding and encouraging long-term bilateral cooperation. Instead, it could undertake increasingly aggressive, unilateral U.S. military strikes against Pakistan-based terrorists deeper into Pakistani territory, coercive diplomacy and sanctions, or a range of financial, diplomatic, and legal restrictions to control the flow of people, money, goods, and information to and from Pakistan... These alternatives carry their own risks. In Pakistan, a shift to sticks without carrots is likely to result in a sharp backlash and is unlikely to encourage greater cooperation by Pakistan to address U.S. interests. A more hard-line approach would probably destabilize Pakistan, solidify popular anti-American sentiment, and fuel U.S.-Pakistan conflict over the long run." [Atlantic Council, 6/10. Brian Katulis, 1/12/11. CFR, 11/10]

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