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02.14.11

The American Killing Roiling Pakistan

Sen. John Kerry is headed for Pakistan to smooth tensions over the immunity plea of a U.S. contractor who shot two Pakistanis in Lahore. Disagreement over how the killings should be handled has set off an ill-timed confrontation between two key allies, writes Ron Moreau.

UPDATE: Dispatched by the White House on a mission to free an American official jailed in Pakistan for killing two Pakistanis, Sen. John Kerry expressed remorse on Tuesday for the deaths and pledged that the official would be investigated for criminal offense once returned to American soil. "That doesn't mean the law of immunity is not to be respected," the senator added. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has so far declined to grant diplomatic immunity to Raymond Davis. The killings occurred three weeks ago and have stirred up anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.

Ron Moreau reports on the killing.

When American Raymond Davis, a former Special Forces soldier, shot to death two would-be robbers at a traffic intersection in Lahore during rush hour last month, it confirmed the worst suspicions of most Pakistanis about the sprawling U.S. presence in Pakistan and the ultimate aims of the American mission. To many Pakistanis, Davis’ actions, even though he insists he acted in self-defense, only reinforced their conviction that the U.S. is running roughshod over Pakistani sovereignty.

The violent incident further sullies America’s already badly tarnished image. As emotions erupted in the wake of the shooting, it seems that all the good that $10 billion in U.S. economic and military aid over the years has done for Pakistan since 2001 appears largely forgotten. For as America’s diplomatic, military, and aid presence has grown exponentially over the past few years, it has sparked all kinds of popular rumors that Washington has a hidden agenda, that it is bent on doing everything to Pakistan—from destabilizing the country, to stealing its considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The ever-expanding number of U.S. personnel, both officials and contractors, which has grown to more than 500—making it one of the largest U.S. missions in the world—has brought about a building boom at the embassy compound, which sits behind high brick walls topped with concertina wire in Islamabad’s heavily guarded diplomatic compound, an area that is all but off-limits to most Pakistanis.

The very visible towering construction cranes at the embassy have fed a spate of rumors for more than a year that to guard the new embassy facilities, a flood of U.S. Marines—at one point the wildest reports claimed up to 10,000 soldiers—were arriving, along with hundreds of private American armed security contractors, including men from the former Blackwater security firm, all landing without the consent and knowledge of the Pakistani government. Pakistanis knew of Blackwater’s infamous reputation from news reports of its excesses in Iraq. So without any real evidence, many Pakistanis became convinced that Blackwater, under its new moniker of Xe Services, was pretty much taking over the capital.

The growing U.S. presence has sparked rumors that Washington is bent on doing everything from destabilizing Pakistan to stealing its nuclear weapons.

No matter how hard U.S. Embassy press officers tried to quash and discredit the rumors, the public perception remained—that a large number of armed American personnel, largely undercover and uncontrolled, were suddenly among them and up to no good. Escalating drone attacks against suspected militants in the tribal badlands only reinforce that negative view. The Taliban quickly seized the opportunity. Last year, when the Taliban would use suicide bombers to blow up civilian targets such as the women’s bazaar in Peshawar, the group would quickly put out the word that Xe Services, not the Taliban, was behind the deadly blast. The anti-American atmosphere is such that a surprising number of Pakistanis believed the lie.

Given that widespread suspicion of U.S. motives in Pakistan, it’s not surprising that Davis was not going to walk free after he emptied the magazine of his Glock into two thieves. Indeed, Davis’ possible over-reaction only plays into Pakistanis’ worst fears about the U.S. running amok in their country. And as a result, Pakistan’s courts and government now seem determined to show that they are out to protect the country’s sovereignty and to maintain some kind of checks and control on the unpopular American presence.

Yet, from Davis and Washington’s point of view, he was acting purely in self-defense, and as an embassy employee should be covered by diplomatic immunity. As he told the Lahore police just after the bloody incident, he was sitting in his car when two men on a motorcycle pulled up alongside and pointed a gun at him through the window. Fearing for his life, he said, he shot both men through the window and then stepped out of his car and photographed the bodies. Davis had also called for help. An American colleague quickly responded, but the U.S. Embassy vehicle that staffer was driving—the wrong way down a one-way street—struck and killed a bicyclist, further enflaming public passions.

Davis’ rather unclear affiliation with the U.S. Embassy has added to the tensions. He was wearing a checked shirt and jeans and was said to be carrying multiple ID cards, one identifying him as a Department of Defense contractor and another as being attached to the U.S. consulate in Peshawar. The Pakistani police and public also wonder what Davis was doing carrying a semi-automatic Glock pistol, and why he killed both of his would-be attackers with multiple gunshots and then photographed the dead bodies sprawled in the street beside his car. There’s also great speculation as to what Davis was doing with a flashlight mounted on a headband, a pocket telescope, and pictures of Lahore buildings on his several cellphones, and additional magazines and ammunition.

Understandably, Washington and the U.S. mission in Pakistan have bristled at Davis’ arrest and detention. They say that Davis, as a member of the embassy’s “administrative and technical staff,” clearly acted in self-defense and is entitled to full diplomatic immunity under the Geneva Conventions. The Americans say he should be immediately handed over to them. The U.S. has intervened strongly with President Asif Ali Zardari and his powerful military chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, saying that relations between the two countries, which are nominal allies in the war against Islamic extremism and the Taliban, could be seriously impaired if Davis is not immediately surrendered to U.S. custody. Zardari’s scheduled trip to Washington at the end of March may hang in the balance. Late last week, Washington called off a regional security meeting that would have included senior Pakistani officials.

But Pakistani authorities seem increasingly reluctant to cooperate, largely because Davis has become such a symbol of U.S. arrogance, and because the country’s vociferous religious parties have taken up the cause of the two men he shot, and of their families. The mullahs see Davis’ case as a perfect opportunity for them to make political hay for standing up the U.S. at a time that the government may be wavering. Despite heavy American pressure, a Lahore high court judge recently extended Davis’ arrest for two more weeks. And Interior Minister Rehman Malik, not wanting to be outflanked by the mullahs, has said no one, including Davis, is above the law, and that no proposal to release him is being considered.

With both sides taking a hard line, it seems difficult for a face-saving solution to be arranged. The stakes couldn’t be higher for both sides. The U.S. depends on Pakistan to assist it in its war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, and Pakistan depends heavily on American economic and military aid. Both sides stand to lose if this confrontation drags on.

Ron Moreau is Newsweek’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.