After Davis: US-Pakistan crisis eases, long term tensions remain

March 18, 2011: Our last blog certainly got the timing wrong: on March 16, Ray Davis was suddenly released from a Pakistani jail and immediately flown out of Pakistan. As we wipe the egg off our faces, however, we note that the package deal leading to his release was based primarily on the ingredients we and others had expected: a substantial compensation payment to the families of the two men he killed, and a new understanding between CIA and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The first made the release legally feasible; the second made it acceptable to ISI; and the Pakistan government and army together are managing the popular fallout. So far, the public protests have been widespread but not massive.

What comes next? We will learn more in the coming months, but here are some preliminary thoughts.


 First, U.S.-Pakistan cooperation will resume – with the long-term mismatch between our objectives if anything intensified.

  • The two intelligence services will resume cooperation, but have agreed that the U.S. will not mount operations inside Pakistan without ISI’s consent. Pakistan will presumably be much more selective in issuing visas to U.S. officials, as ISI has demanded.

As a practical matter, U.S. ability to collect intelligence inside Pakistan will probably be reduced, not just because of the publicity around the Davis case, but because of the reported arrests of 45 of his contacts. Such agreements do not necessarily last forever, but for the time being, U.S. information on Pakistan-based militant organizations will suffer. Suggestions that ISI will pick up this slack and provide better intelligence to their U.S. counterparts in this area are naïve.

  • Always a magnet for bitter criticism, drone attacks on suspected al Qaeda leaders now face heightened controversy. An attack on March 17 reportedly killed a handful of militants, but also some 30 tribal elders assembled in a jirga. It drew an unusual public rebuke from army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and a sharp protest from the foreign ministry. The latter cancelled Pakistan’s participation in a trilateral U.S.-Pakistan-Afghanistan meeting scheduled for March 26 – a pointed reminder of the U.S. decision to cancel a trilateral summit about a month earlier. The protest was to be expected; the high profile and timing suggest that it was meant to send a stiff message to the United States.
  • The underlying problem of mismatched U.S.-Pakistan objectives remains. Both countries want to keep Al Qaeda-oriented elements out of the government in Kabul. Pakistan’s top priority is to assure that a postwar government in Kabul is responsive to Pakistan’s interests, and some of the groups Pakistan considers desirable are hostile to the United States. Islamabad is determined to stay in the driver’s seat in shaping the future political setup there. This disconnect has led Pakistan and the United States to work at cross-purposes in the past; it will do so again in the future.

Second, anti-American sentiment has become stronger in Pakistan, both at the popular level and among important political and government personalities. This will intensify the security problems faced by U.S. officials. With their movements even more circumscribed, U.S. ability to understand Pakistan will fall. And the Davis case will provide a rich narrative to stoke popular hostility to the United States.

Third, Pakistan’s civilian leadership and its major political parties are damaged. The central government, run by the PPP, and the Punjab government, run by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML/N), both look weak and ineffective. Both have been denying responsibility for Davis’s release. Both, and especially the PPP, are accused by the religious parties of failing to defend Pakistan’s honor. The Army and specifically ISI, by contrast, have had their power reinforced, along with their reputation as the only institutions in Pakistan that can deliver a deal (and in the process push the politicians around).

What does this episode tell us about how Pakistan and the United States deal with one another? At first blush, there are three lessons that also figured in earlier U.S.-Pakistan negotiations.

  • Pakistan, in particular the army, is quite prepared to play hardball in addressing its enduring threat perceptions. In this case, the threat is from India. Davis was apparently supporting intelligence collection against a militant group that has been involved in attacks against India. With Davis in custody and the U.S. mounting a high profile campaign for his release, ISI had leverage and used it even at the cost of stoking highly visible public dissatisfaction with the government. It has not often has HAD such clear leverage, but Pakistan has often dealt with the United States on the premise that the United States needs Pakistan more than the other way around. One example: the attacks on U.S. shipments into Afghanistan that have followed deliberate or accidental U.S. incursions from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
  • Pakistan’s major approach to dealing with the United States includes what one of our Pakistani friends once referred to as the “victimization card:” creating a sense of obligation on the part of the United States. In this case, Pakistan had good reason to feel victimized – after all, two Pakistanis were shot dead and a third run over. Emphasizing its grievances against the United States was an important element in this negotiation – and has been in others where the grievance was perhaps less obvious.
  • As for the U.S., it has again relied heavily on legal arguments. In this case, that was inevitable: the case was, after all, in the courts, and initially at least turned on the legal and technical question of diplomatic immunity. But the legal approach had two problems: the paper trail on Davis’s diplomatic status was apparently pretty sloppy from the U.S. perspective; and in any case, after the first day or two, it became clear that the legal case wasn’t going to deliver a solution.


We hear from both sides that things are back to normal, illustrating once again the strange resilience of U.S.-Pakistan relations. This episode will leave scars, however, and “normal” U.S.-Pakistan ties are difficult to manage. The way it ended will reinforce the view in Washington that the only way to get difficult things done in Pakistan is through the army. The weakness of the civilian government is not Washington’s fault – its causes are internal. But this sets up a vicious cycle: the civilian politicians aren’t able to solve a problem; Washington turns to the army, which delivers (even when the “delivery” has a sting in the tail); the civilians are weakened in the process; when the next crisis comes, they are even less able to deliver. The United States needs both civilians and military, and this nasty cycle keeps both countries from addressing the issues where we really do share important interests in common.

Howard and Teresita Schaffer

One Reply to “After Davis: US-Pakistan crisis eases, long term tensions remain”

  1. Schaffers: You are doing the “community” a significant service. Pls keep up the good work. As to l’Affaire Davis, it underscores the deficiencies in a system that substitutes questionable contractors [ex-Blackwater?] for properly vetted and trained government employees. Ye shall reap what ye sow. The goal may be to save the taxpater money, but ultimately, someone had to pay the $2.3 mil “ransom” for that was what it was!

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