Friday, March 18, 2011

A Pyrrhic victory

SO who lied? They all did. The federal government knew whether Davis had immunity or not, but it kept quiet. The Punjab government and police knew the two ‘innocents’ killed were at least petty thieves and probably more, but Punjab hawked a different line.

The media had in its possession eyewitness accounts that appeared to corroborateDavis’s defence, but quietly shelved the video testimonies. An orgy of self-righteous indignation is a made-for-television spectacle and is extremely profitable. The Americans knew ‘our diplomat’ wasn’t a diplomat — immunity being a separate question — but that was awkward, so they pretended otherwise. The American media was in on the secret, but dissembled.

And then there are ‘the boys’, our wannabe world dominators who would have us believe they didn’t know about the activities of a handful of foreign spies in the country’s second-largest city. Pakistan isn’t exactly a tourist Mecca. White men stand out.
You can easily figure out what the rest wanted. The media: ratings. The politicians: popularity, or avoiding further unpopularity. The Americans: their guy back, and avoiding a precedent that could be used against them in other trouble spots. The American media: future access.
But what did ‘the boys’ want?
Through carefully planted leaks, we are told the ISI wanted the Americans to end their ‘secret activities’. No going behind our backs and doing stuff without informing us, the ISI has apparently told the Americans.
Wondering how it was possible for Americans to be conducting espionage in Lahore? Oh, it was Hussain Haqqani and those America-loving PPP guys who sold out the country for a few hundred visas.
Still wondering how it was possible for Americans with visas to be conducting espionage in Lahore? As in, so someone gave them a visa, does that mean the ISI allows every American with a visa to roam around and do what they like?
Never mind that, we are told, the important thing is we’ve got promises and concessions from the Americans.
And the concessions we’ve had to make? Y’know, like the ones which allowed ‘dozens’ or even ‘hundreds’ of Americans to run around the country in the first place?
Never mind, it’s all been sorted. Trust us.
The public has no choice in the matter. Whether we trust the ISI and its masters, army generals, or not, the one big black box in the country remains a big black box.
What goes in, what comes out, how are things processed inside — the public knows nothing.
At least with the media and the politicians you can figure out stuff. Stupid American kills two boys in broad daylight in Lahore.
A third victim is run over by a rescue team. Media: yay, ratings! Politicians: oh, must avoid being on the wrong side of the public. Hang him!
But with the establishment? You’re left clutching at straws, triangulating between ever-shifting nodes.
Frankly, if it were just games between states, it wouldn’t matter that much. Locked in a mutually suspicious and distrustful relationship, they will constantly seek to extract their pounds of flesh and bend the other to their will. Boys will be boys.
The problem: it isn’t just a game between states.
Raymond Davis may have given the ISI an opportunity to push back against the CIA/US and our spies may well have got their way — for now.
But if 10 years into an uneasy relationship, the boys over here still see fit to foment public unrest or to churn the political waters over every little disagreement with the US, at what point does the mess here become totally unmanageable?
Raymond Davis is gone. Whatever the PTI or JI are hoping for, the air has been let out of that episode. It won’t count for much in terms of political mileage going forward.
But for six weeks this country was held hostage by a trigger-happy US contractor who probably wouldn’t be able to get through the front door at Langley without special security clearance.
Surely, there ought to be better ways for the establishment to convey its unhappiness to the Americans?
Indignant pundits on TV are warning that terrorism and extremism may increase now that Davis has been set free. If they are right, it’s only because Davis was made into an issue of national honour. And you don’t have to look very far to find who encouraged that characterisation in the first place.
Remember the Kerry-Lugar fiasco? One little statement from GHQ and on cue the political class, sections of the media and the public at large erupted.
What did that gain us? Not one term was changed, not one word. If it was all about assurances, surely the establishment could have used other channels to demand those. And if those assurances were violated, the ante could have been upped later.
But it’s the unthinking recourse to public pressure that seems to characterise the establishment’s responses. And they always appear to be responses, not part of some broader strategy.
In the Davis affair, the central concern for the Americans wasn’t the response of the Pakistani public, it was to get their guy back.
So once we got their guy, we had bargaining power. Use it, quietly and efficiently.
And for those who think that killings in broad daylight in Lahore couldn’t be dealt with ‘quietly’, then think about all the attacks against military installations and security agencies in the past few years What visa details or interrogation tapes or jail-cell conditions has the public learned of in any of those attacks?
Raymond Davis is gone. But the bitterness and hate and propaganda the episode spawned will linger on.
Kerry-Lugar, drone strikes, Aafia Siddiqi, Raymond Davis — why can’t the establishment here fight its battles with the US without making this place a little more dangerous, a little less stable each time?