The Cable

Kerry in Pakistan to diffuse tensions over Davis case

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) is in Pakistan, but not only to negotiate the release of an American diplomat imprisoned there. Kerry’s trip was designed to reset U.S.-Pakistan relations, which have been strained by recent events. "We have many mutual interests. And that’s what brings me here," Kerry said at a press ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) is in Pakistan, but not only to negotiate the release of an American diplomat imprisoned there. Kerry’s trip was designed to reset U.S.-Pakistan relations, which have been strained by recent events.

"We have many mutual interests. And that’s what brings me here," Kerry said at a press conference upon arriving in Lahore on Tuesday, the city where U.S. diplomat Raymond Davis was arrested on Jan. 27 after fatally shooting two Pakistani men. The U.S. government has been demanding Davis be released from prison because, as an employee of the embassy there, he has diplomatic immunity. Kerry said that rescuing Davis, however, wasn’t the focus of his visit.

"I’m here, because in the middle of events that seem to be focusing people narrowly, we need to remember and think about the things that we care about and that we’re both fighting for the bigger, the bigger strategic interests," Kerry said. "And we cannot allow one thing or another that might divide us in a small way to take away from the things that unite us in a big way."

Behind the scenes, a high-level government source familiar with the discussions said that Kerry crafted the trip and his message on his own. President Obama asked Kerry to travel to Pakistan to deal with the Davis crisis, which has put elements of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation on hold. But after conferring with senior foreign policy aides and Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani over the weekend, Kerry decided to travel to Pakistan for a "relationship saving" mission, not a "rescue" mission, the source explained.

For example, Kerry decided to travel first to Lahore, rather than Islamabad where the Pakistani government resides. Although he will meet with Pakistani government officials at the highest levels, including President Asif Ali Zardari, he wanted first to deliver a message to the Pakistani people directly in the town where the incident took place and tell them directly that the United States wasn’t only interested in Davis’s release.

"Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry left last night for Pakistan where he will meet with senior Pakistani government officials to reaffirm U.S. support for the strategic relationship between the two countries," committee spokesman Frederick Jones told The Cable.

Kerry told the White House before he left that he was not going solely to secure the release of Davis specifically, but to establish a path out of the crisis and ensure other areas of critical cooperation remained on track, the high-level government source said.

The reaction in Pakistan to Kerry’s opening press conference among officials supportive of the relationship was overwhelmingly positive.

"He said all the right things on Pakistan," a senior Pakistani official told The Cable. "John Kerry is recognized by most Pakistanis as a friend of Pakistan. By sending him, President Obama has really helped what could have become a bigger diplomatic problem down the road."

The trip comes after a severe downturn in U.S.-Pakistan relations following Davis’s arrest. Davis, a former Special Forces operative who speaks fluent Urdu, was being tailed by two suspected agents of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence organization on motorcycles when he shot and killed them through the windshield of his car. Davis claimed they brandished guns. A third Pakistani man was run over and killed by a U.S. embassy vehicle accidentally as it rushed to the scene.

The State Department has always maintained that Davis has diplomatic immunity but has been unclear on what his actually job was in Pakistan. The State Department said on Monday that Davis was a member of the "technical and administrative staff" at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and that he had been temporarily assigned to the consulate in Lahore.

The shooting has become a national scandal in Pakistan and an international crisis due to a combination of circumstances and political gamesmanship by opponents of the Zardari government inside Pakistan. When Davis was arrested, the Punjabi police did not write on his arrest forms that he claimed diplomatic immunity, a Pakistani government source said.

This source told The Cable that the region around Lahore is run by the brother of Nawaz Sharif, the top political opponent to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and the authorities there might have sought to take political advantage of the situation. By claiming that Davis had committed murder and pushing the story out to Pakistani media, Zardari was placed in the unenviable position of having to choose whether to defend an American murderer or risk the wrath of his countrymen.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi happened to be out of the country at the time. A Foreign Ministry official named Salman Bashir was left to make the decide whether to grant Davis immunity right away but decided it would be politically prudent to make no decision at all and let Davis remain in jail, the Pakistani government source said. Unclear messages from the U.S. side exacerbated the confusion.

"The political tragedy was that it was almost three days before the U.S. government claimed immunity, by which time the tensions had already been inflamed," the source explained.

It should be clear to the Zardari government that because Davis was on the U.S. embassy diplomatic list, he has immunity as a matter of international law under the Vienna Convention and should be released. But they are likely trying to avoid absorbing the political fallout of releasing him by passing the buck to the Pakistani courts, who will hear arguments about the Davis case on Feb. 17.

Meanwhile, the Davis debacle has stalled some U.S.-Pakistan cooperation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton canceled her scheduled meeting with Qureshi at the recent Munich Security Conference and the U.S. postponed a planned trilateral meeting between top officials from the U.S., Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is personally involved in trying to secure Davis’s release. Haqqani has denied reports that Donilon threatened to kick him out of the country if Davis wasn’t release,, but the White House has told the Pakistani government the issue must be resolved before full cooperation can resume.

The most probable outcome will be a face-saving deal whereby the Pakistani courts agree to release Davis, the U.S. government promises to investigate the incident as a criminal matter, and the U.S. pays some compensation to the families of the Pakistani victims.

In the end, the incident illustrates that the U.S. and Pakistani governments still have a ways to go in terms of working together to build stability into the relationship.

Either way, our Pakistani source said that there is plenty of blame to go around.

"[Davis] was wrong in carrying the gun. He was wrong in shooting the people. There definitely was some craziness in what he was doing," the source said. "But it’s a clear and gross violation of international law to hold a diplomat."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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