Saturday, March 19, 2011


In the years of Empire the European powers sought to extend their grip over central Asia. This rivalry quickly became known as "the great game".

In Islamabad it still sometimes appears as if the new powers are playing out their own spy novel fantasy thrillers, without regard for the people of the region.

This was my take from Islamabad . . .


Islamabad. It's only once you've touched the bottom, reaching the utter nadir of a relationship, before you can be certain you've changed direction. The vital relationship between the US and Pakistan hit that point about three weeks ago. Despite all the rhetoric about renewed cooperation and focus on winning the so-called "War on Terror", the reality was that since the end of January the fight against Islamic terrorism has been going nowhere. Until last Wednesday.

That was the day that three weeks of tense, behind-the-scenes negotiations finally bore fruit. Ostensibly, all that was at stake was the future of one man, Raymond Davis. The reality behind his fate was far more serious. In the meantime the entire US strategy in central Asia had been reduced to a formless void. Trust had vanished from the relationship. The two key allies had been reduced to spying on each other and, eventually, taking-out the others operatives. This wasn't just happening in Pakistan's North-west frontier province either; it was happening on the streets of Lahore.

Davies was an (apparently) undeclared CIA agent who chased, shot and killed two Pakistani nationals who were trying to flee on a motorbike. At least that's the story the court was told. Davis claimed the men had tried to rob him, but the reality is far more murky. At the same time another event occurred that wasn't dealt with by the courts. A specially-modified vehicle (one with dark-tinted windows and an undisclosed secret cargo) ran over an innocent bystander at the scene -- either accidentally or, as the gossip would have it, to prevent him disclosing what he'd just witnessed. It seems there's no way we'll know for sure exactly what occurred. Nevertheless, it appears this shooting was actually an inter-necine killing, representing the final breakdown of the tense relationship between the Americans and Pakistan's own Inter-Service Intelligence agency. The continuing friction had finally erupted into a shooting war. The ISI had been reduced to spying on the American's as it tried to find out exactly what sort of strange game the US was engaged in playing in central Asia.

According to this theory, the shootings were the culmination of bitter distrust and mutual suspicion between the two spy agencies. The US had become certain the ISI was still controlling the Taliban insurgents who were fighting the international forces over the border in Afghanistan. As a result the superpower had effectively stopped cooperating with the Pakistanis and was beginning to carry out its own covert operations. Despite some progress, the troop surge has failed to bring any lasting progress in the war in Afghanistan: it had become increasingly obvious that the guerrillas were simply using the lawless north-western provinces of Pakistan as a safe-haven where they were resting and replenishing, before crossing back over the border to renew the war against the international forces.

Inevitably, suspicions were raised that the ISI was actually nurturing the terrorists. Gradually America began to hide what it was doing from the Pakistanis. They retaliated, spying on the hundreds of undeclared CIA agents who'd been allowed into the country in previous years.

No one knows exactly what, or who was in the blacked-out vehicle, but the Americans must have been desperate to prevent their operation becoming compromised. The conspiracy theory suggests Davis spotted the two Pakistanis after they'd seen what they weren't meant to. As they began to drive off he ran after them, pulling out a heavy Glock handgun (that hadn't been registered with the authorities). Davies shot and killed both men from behind, ensuring they wouldn't ever report what they'd seen. And that's when the diplomatic furore began.

To understand what happened in the weeks since then it's only necessary to grasp the fact that Pakistan remains very much a nation on the edge. Although the military remains the most significant institution in the country, the religious right is becoming increasingly vocal and extreme. It's firing up ordinary people; pointing out that the US is still dropping bombs and killing innocent people as it carries the fight to Taliban safe havens across the border from Afghanistan. The preaching and inspiration for jihad is falling on fertile ground. Although the Pakistan army has managed to retake a significant area from the insurgents, other areas are effectively beyond the control of Islamabad. The ISI is the key agency -- but it's feeling increasingly sandwiched between conflicting and, until now, irreconcilable desires.

And in the centre is the battle for Pakistani public opinion. This is the crucial ground, where the contest will finally be won or lost. And yet this vital front in the war has been ignored. The whole court-case reads more like a John le Carré spy thriller than sensible operational spying trade-craft. It's difficult not to believe that some of the characters involved in the action were acting more like their heroes from the big screen and people aware of the broader issues involved. As a result, nothing has been done to support the vital institutions that are involved in fighting the increasing radicalisation of the populace on the streets of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

In the end it's been Pakistan that show the necessary flexibility to deal with the issue, allowing the Americans to bring their man home safely. A straight deal, caving in to US demands and providing Davies with diplomatic immunity would have inflamed the religious right and further advanced the Islamic cause. In the end a suggestion by the Prime Minister provided the answer. The Koran permits the payment of blood-money (diyat) for a crime, instead of punishment (qisas). Religious groups had urged the relations not to accept any financial restitution. Fortunately, money talked. Anyone standing in the way of a settlement could be seen as being politically motivated. After all, such payment was both legitimate and encouraged by Islam itself.

The family's lawyers had also been encouraging them to hold-out and demand Davis’ imprisonment. In the end they were locked-up for four hours until the families caved-in. By the time they emerged from prison their clients had agreed to accept the payment. Minutes after the court hearing finished, the family members were whisked away to an undisclosed location. Some people even suspect they've been given asylum in America. Ensuring the family's silence has certainly cost the US taxpayer millions. Nevertheless, if this provides a new basis for cooperation between America and Pakistan to actually fight terror, rather than each other, the money will have been very well spent.

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