Walter Rodgers

US and Pakistan: allies with mutual disgust

The Raymond Davis incident shows the fault lines in the US-Pakistan relationship. The real battle being fought between the two 'allies' is in Afghanistan – the battle for influence.

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The bizarre case of Raymond Davisthe CIA contract employee who shot and killed two Pakistani men who were pursuing him on the streets of Lahore Jan. 27 – illustrates just how poisonous relations between the United States and Pakistan have become.

The controversy over Mr. Davis’s role in Pakistan, his release, and Pakistan’s internal intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has spotlighted the already strained US-Pakistan relationship. But what’s ultimately being fought out is whose influence will reshape Afghanistan, especially after July, when the drawdown of US troops begins.

The context of the Davis incident mimics the spy novels of John le Carré or Graham Greene.

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The streets of Pakistan – where the confrontation unraveled – are a dangerous place. Most Westerners who travel in Pakistan, and who can afford it, hire an armed driver, a bodyguard, or both. I used to hide my cellphone in a deep pocket and carry a wallet filled with paper to hand over to motor scooter pirates at intersections if someone stuck a gun in the car window to rob me.

While driving, Davis was tailed by two men for more than two hours (the timeline given by Pakistani officials). According to Davis’s statements, at a stoplight, the two men pulled up beside him, and one brandished a pistol. He alleged that they were going to rob him. But it would not have been difficult to imagine he was the target of an assassination. As details emerged to fill out the story, such a possibility seems more likely.

The former Green Beret pleaded self-defense. Street piracy, kidnapping, and murder are so common on Pakistani streets that local police normally shrug at such incidents rather than investigate. Not this time. It turns out the pursuers weren’t just thugs. Pakistani officials reported – and it is now widely believed – that the two men actually worked for the ISI. These officials claim the men were trailing Davis because he was a spy and had traveled to restricted areas without authorization.

What's the real story?

Were they simply following and intimidating Davis, as Pakistani security officials have alleged? Or were they about to take out an American citizen who the State Department said had diplomatic immunity? Davis apparently thought this was the case. And what was it “our spy” was discovering about the ISI’s black ops that Pakistan didn’t want him to learn?

One version holds that Davis’s CIA team was gathering intelligence on Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist terrorist group the ISI has reportedly employed to perpetrate attacks on India. It’s also been suggested that Davis was “working” northern Waziristan, where Islamabad has resisted US requests to root out Taliban and Al Qaeda elements in the Islamist stronghold. Whatever Davis’s mission, one Pakistani friend told me that Davis had angered the ISI by trying to link up with militant groups. That turf war between the United States (CIA) and the ISI lies at the heart of the Davis incident.

After 47 days in jail and reported US threats to slash aid to Pakistan (billions a year), Davis was released after a reported $2.3 million payoff (blood money) to the dead men’s families.

A relationship of distrust

Islamabad now wants the CIA to reduce its presence in Pakistan. But the relationship between Islamabad and Washington has long been ugly and disingenuous. In December 2001, while the rest of the world was sympathizing with the US after 9/11, I was interviewing the head of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party who proceeded to tell me how much Pakistanis despised the US. This anti-American animosity in Pakistan is nearly universal, despite the $18 billion in aid Washington has doled out since 9/11.

Now Pakistan wants the relationship with the US reconfigured. It – especially the ISI – resents the CIA’s footprint there. Worse, it probably fears Washington really wants to neutralize Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal.

Islamabad complains loudly that it’s excluded from the US intelligence loop. But it’s common knowledge in Pakistan (and the US) that the ISI has substantial ties to the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and right-wing Islamic zealots – many of whom are the same folks trying to kill Americans in Afghanistan. Some suspect the ISI may even know where Osama bin Laden is hiding. The US intelligence community doesn’t trust the ISI. But then, as my Pakistani friend said, “No one in Pakistan trusts the ISI.”

The battle for influence in Afghanistan

Central to these tensions is the battle being fought in Afghanistan – the battle for influence. Pakistanis bristle at what they see as growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, and some contend that India funds anti-Pakistan Taliban factions responsible for terrorist bombings.

Along with that growing Indian presence, Islamabad is also sensitive to a growing Iranian sway in Afghanistan. As Pakistani journalist Aftab Borka observed, “Pakistan will always be anxious until it is the dominant, if not the only, player in Afghanistan.”

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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