With a Washington summit later this month hanging in the balance, the United States has suspended high-level contacts with Pakistan’s beleaguered civilian government over Pakistan’s refusal to release a US diplomat accused of double murder.
The US insists the American, Raymond Davis, enjoys diplomatic immunity and has been wrongfully detained since he allegedly shot two motorcyclists tailing him in Lahore on Jan. 27. Pakistani officials have questioned Mr. Davis’s diplomatic status.
US-Pakistan bilateral relations are rarely trouble-free, but the diplomatic row comes at a time when Pakistan’s already-high anti-Americanism is rising further. It’s also happening as the weak civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari is buffeted by new signs of public support for the country’s Islamist radicals.
Failure to resolve the standoff soon could put off a crucial summit scheduled for the end of the month in Washington that is supposed to bring together US, Pakistani, and Afghan leaders as a show of coordination on the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts more broadly.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the issue of Davis’s detention with Pakistan’s Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, at a security conference over the weekend in Munich, Germany. She also raised the issue in a telephone conversation with President Zardari last week. But she reportedly canceled a meeting at the Munich conference with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Publicly, the State Department denies any slowdown in high-level contacts, even while emphasizing the impact on bilateral relations that any continued detention of Davis could have.
“We continue to have contacts with the Pakistani government,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley at a press briefing Monday. “We continue to express to them the importance of resolving this. And we continue to express to them the fact that our US diplomat has diplomatic immunity and should be released.”
The US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, met with Zardari Monday and conveyed the US message, Mr. Crowley said.
The turn for the worse in US-Pakistan relations comes even as a new US government study finds that a substantial civilian-development assistance program, approved by the US for Pakistan in 2009, is failing to achieve its goals.
A report released jointly this week by the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Office of Inspector General for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) found that the five-year, $7.5 billion assistance package “has not been able to demonstrate measurable progress” toward the goal of stabilizing Pakistan and furthering its development.
The report faults USAID for failing to provide the information necessary to make a full evaluation of the program’s impact so far. But it also recognizes that conditions in Pakistan have hampered US efforts to get its development experts out into the field.
USAID is having trouble recruiting the staff it needs to run the aid program, the report found.
The specifics of the Davis case may have little to do with the conditions encountered by the average US aid worker. But some US officials have said that a failure to win Davis’s release soon could not help but have a chilling effect on efforts to recruit the staff needed to implement such a substantial aid program.
The $1.5 billion in annual development assistance makes Pakistan the second-largest recipient of such US aid after Afghanistan.
The State Department says that Davis is part of the “technical and administrative staff” of the US embassy in Islamabad and that as the holder of a diplomatic passport, he is entitled to “full criminal immunity in accordance with the Vienna Convention.”
The US, Mr. Crowley says, stands by its version of events: that Davis was assaulted by motorcycle-mounted robbers and fired in self-defense. The Pakistani press reports that the two men Davis is charged with killing were actually agents of Pakistan’s intelligence service, ISI, who were assigned to tail Davis.
“We don’t find them credible,” Crowley said of those reports.
The Pakistani government is wrestling with the repercussions it could incur domestically if it intervened in a provincial court on behalf of an American, in particular one accused of killing two Pakistanis.
A hint of the uproar it would meet came this week after the widow of one of the two men killed in Lahore committed suicide. The Pakistani press has been filled with reports that the widow told a doctor she swallowed rat poison because she could not bear the thought that Davis could be set free without facing Pakistani justice.