Feb 16, 2011 | 04:21 GMT

4 mins read

A Dilemma in U.S.-Pakistani Relations

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
While most of the recent international focus has been on Egypt's unrest and the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, another key geopolitical crisis has been brewing, this time between the United States and Pakistan. Getting a bit of respite from the situation in Egypt, U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday called on the Pakistani government to release a U.S. security contractor serving at the U.S. Consulate in Lahore. Raymond Davis shot and killed two armed Pakistani nationals on Jan. 27 because he thought they were going to rob him. U.S. Sen. John Kerry arrived in Islamabad on Tuesday as part of an effort to secure the release of Davis, who has been held in a Pakistani prison. Kerry is also attempting to ease tensions between the two sides. Relations between the United States and Pakistan have long been extremely tense over disagreements on how to prosecute the war in Afghanistan. From the American point of view, Pakistan is not taking action against Afghan Taliban forces operating on its soil. Conversely, the Pakistanis feel that the incoherence of the United States' strategy for Afghanistan threatens Pakistani security. Many Pakistanis deeply resent what they see as their leaders' quick surrender of national rights to appease the Americans. This latest crisis, however, has taken the situation to a new level. Washington insists that in keeping with the international conventions of diplomatic immunity, Islamabad needs to release Davis. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been prosecuting Davis in keeping with its laws. Beyond competing versions about the shooting and how the matter needs to be resolved, this standoff is difficult for both sides. The Obama administration cannot afford to see a foreign country prosecute one of its diplomats. Likewise, neither the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari nor the country's military establishment can afford to be seen domestically as giving up an American who has admitted to killing two Pakistani nationals, especially in light of strong anti-American sentiment. The Pakistanis are in a far worse situation than the Americans because of the country's extremely unstable economic, security and political conditions. As a result, Islamabad is heavily reliant on Washington's goodwill while dealing with the exceedingly difficult circumstances it faces. And in the interest of sustaining the much-needed relationship with the United States, Pakistan is not in a position to resist pressure from its great power patron. Succumbing to American pressure, however, can lead to further unrest in Pakistan, where a significant segment of the population feels strongly that Davis should be punished according to the law of the land. Many Pakistanis deeply resent what they see as their leaders' quick surrender of national rights to appease the Americans. If the Pakistani government handed Davis over to American authorities, there could be further deterioration in political and security conditions — no Pakistani government can afford to be seen as caving into U.S. demands. In addition to the political backlash, Pakistani Taliban rebels threatened to target all officials responsible for giving in to U.S. demands. This is a problem not just for the Pakistanis, but also for the Americans. The U.S. strategy for Afghanistan depends upon cooperation from Pakistan. For Pakistan to cooperate with Washington's efforts to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan, Islamabad needs to be stable. Thus, the Davis case has complicated an already difficult situation. The key challenge for the United States is how to retrieve Davis and not make matters worse for Islamabad so that the two sides can focus on the bigger picture in Afghanistan.

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