Two ticking packages slipped into the White House. One is the situation in Egypt that, if not handled carefully especially in Cairo as well as in Washington, could be the bomb that explodes the Middle East. The other package is IED-like — an improvised explosive device — lurking in Lahore. If that goes off, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship will be irreversibly damaged.
The massive protests in Egypt have captured worldwide attention. The many tens of thousands of Egyptians gathering in and around Tahrir Square demanding that President Hosni Mubarak must go is indeed a real revolution. But the consequences of these protests both for the here and now and for the long-term cannot even be guessed.
Pakistan is quite opposite from Egypt in that the pending crisis revolves around a single individual, not tens of thousands of Pakistanis. Yet, these consequences could prove as disastrous for the United States and Pakistan as would uncontrollable events in Egypt. Thus far, swamped by media fixation on Egypt, the arrest of an American diplomat in Lahore two weeks ago on charges of killing two Pakistanis along with possessing an illegal weapon hasn’t become a cause celebre.
What is happening and could happen in Egypt has predictably provoked incessant commentary and opinion. For the moment, events seem to be unfolding in a positive direction because of discussions on forming a transition government now including members of the opposition and the intention of ending emergency rule. However, fragility reigns. And a single spark could ignite this political bombshell.
The Pakistani IED is different. Two weeks ago, an American diplomat named Raymond Davis was arrested in Lahore in the shooting of two Pakistanis. Davis claimed the two attempted to hold him up at gunpoint and that he acted in self-defense. A third Pakistani was killed when a backup car from the U.S. Consulate reportedly rushed to Davis’s aid and hit a civilian motorcyclist.
The United States, at all levels of government, immediately claimed diplomatic immunity for Davis, demanding his immediate release and unequivocally supported his claim of self-defense. Then, the problems started and the crisis escalated reflecting the huge divide between the two strategic partners and the vast anti-American hostility sadly shared by a great majority of Pakistanis.
As an accredited diplomat, the Vienna Convention of 1961 guarantees Davis immunity. From U.S. and international law perspectives, the case is ironclad and there have been numerous egregious examples where diplomats have been protected by immunity. Unfortunately, technicalities in procedure and Pakistani law have kept Davis in custody. It appears that Pakistan didn’t draft the Vienna Convention into their law. And the United States may not have listed Davis as immunized in documentation to the Pakistani foreign ministry.
But the explosive forces in this IED are not these legal technicalities. They are the politics of Pakistan. Punjab is the power base for Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the leading opposition to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party with Lahore its headquarters. The police technically come under the province. And both provincial and federal courts are fiercely independent of the federal government.
Pakistanis are enraged over this incident and the killing of a third person with the driver allegedly escaping into the sanctuary of the consulate. Worse, the wife of one of those killed committed suicide. Any Pakistani government official who intervenes on behalf of Davis will attract public ire and possible retaliation. The recent assassination of Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer for taking a strong stand against the blasphemy laws won’t be forgotten.
One of many fuses to this IED is the Pakistani media, filled with all sorts of ludicrous conspiracy theories accusing Davis of being everything from James Bond to Machine Gun Kelly. The United States has its “birther” stories about President Barack Obama being foreign-born. Pakistani media are far more irresponsible. For example, the Jang Press has repeatedly reported President Asif Zardari’s secret marriage to a Pakistani-American doctor. The story has been denied by the lady who never met the president as well as the grounds for a suit filed against the company by an attorney acting for Zardari.
The White House is understandably playing hardball over this. The bilateral meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistan Foreign Minister SM Qureshi was canceled and Zardari’s state visit could hang in the balance. The already strained relationship will deteriorate further.
The White House knows that only the Egyptians can defuse their bomb and Pakistanis their IED over the detention of Davis. In the former, that will take a very long time. A new government and the emergence of new political parties as well as repairing the economy take time. In the latter crisis, Pakistani politics are the inhibitors.
But make no mistake: unless both bombs are defused, the damage will be incalculable.
Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI. Photo credit: AP Photo.