Share

The Threat of Civil Unrest in Pakistan and the Davis Case

Print Text Size

By Scott Stewart

On Feb. 13, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issued a statement demanding that the government of Pakistan execute U.S. government contractor Raymond Davis or turn him over to the TTP for judgment. Davis, a contract security officer for the CIA, has been in Pakistani custody since a Jan. 27 incident in which he shot two men who reportedly pointed a pistol at him in an apparent robbery attempt.

Pakistani officials have corroborated Davis' version of events and, according to their preliminary report, Davis appears to have acted in self-defense. From a tactical perspective, the incident appears to have been (in tactical security parlance) a "good shoot," but the matter has been taken out of the tactical realm and has become mired in transnational politics and Pakistani public sentiment. Whether the shooting was justified or not, Davis has now become a pawn in a larger game being played out between the United States and Pakistan.

When one considers the way similar periods of tension between the Pakistanis and Americans have unfolded in the past, it is not unreasonable to conclude that as this current period plays out, it could have larger consequences for Davis and for American diplomatic facilities and commercial interests in Pakistan. Unless the Pakistani government is willing and able to defuse the situation, the case could indeed provoke violent protests against the United States, and U.S. citizens and businesses in Pakistan should be prepared for this backlash.

Details of the Case

One of the reasons that the Pakistanis have been able to retain Davis in custody is that while he may have been traveling on a "black" diplomatic U.S. passport, not everyone who holds a diplomatic passport is afforded full diplomatic immunity. The only people afforded full diplomatic immunity are those who are on a list of diplomats officially accredited as diplomatic agents by the receiving country. The rest of the foreign employees at an embassy or a consulate in the receiving country who are not on the diplomatic list and who are not accredited as diplomatic agents under the Vienna Convention are only protected by functional immunity. This means they are only protected from prosecution related to their official duties.

As a contract employee assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Lahore, Davis was likely not on the diplomatic list and probably did not enjoy full diplomatic immunity. He was probably considered a member of the administrative or technical staff. Protecting himself during a robbery attempt would not be considered part of his official function in the country, and therefore his actions that day would not be covered under functional immunity. So determining exactly what level of immunity Davis was provided will be critical in this case, and the information provided by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry will have a big impact on the Pakistani judge hearing the arguments.

In all likelihood, Davis was briefed regarding his legal status by his company and by the CIA prior to being assigned to post. He also would have been told that, while he had limited immunity, the U.S. government would do its best to take care of him if some incident occurred. However, it would have been made clear to him that in working as a protective contractor he was running a risk and that if there was an incident on or off duty, he could wind up in trouble. All security contractors working overseas know this and accept the risk as part of the job.

At the time of the shooting, of course, Davis would not have had time to leisurely ponder this potential legal quagmire. He saw a threat and reacted to it. Undoubtedly, the U.S. government will do all it can to help Davis out -- especially since the case appears to be a good-shoot scenario and not a case of negligence or bad judgment. Indeed, on Feb. 15, U.S. Sen. John Kerry flew to Islamabad in a bid to seek Davis' release. However, in spite of American efforts and international convention, Davis' case is complicated greatly by the fact that he was working in Pakistan and by the current state of U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Tensions

Over the past few years, relations between the United States and Pakistan have been very strained. This tension has been evidenced not only by public opinion but also by concrete examples. For example, in mid-December, the CIA station chief in Islamabad was forced to leave the country after his name was disclosed in a class-action lawsuit brought by relatives of civilians killed by unmanned aerial vehicle strikes in the Pakistani tribal badlands.

It was no coincidence that the Pakistani lawsuit against the CIA station chief occurred shortly after the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was accused in a civil lawsuit of being involved in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. The suit was brought in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn by family members of the American rabbi killed alongside his wife in Mumbai by Pakistan-based Islamist militants.

Like Iraq, Pakistan is a country that has seen considerable controversy over American security contractors over the past several years. The government of Pakistan has gone after security contractor companies like DynCorp and its Pakistani affiliate InterRisk and Xe (formerly known as Blackwater), which has become the Pakistani version of the bogeyman. In addition to the clandestine security and intelligence work the company was conducting in Pakistan, in 2009 the Taliban even began to blame Xe for suicide bombing attacks that killed civilians. The end result is that American security contractors have become extremely unpopular in Pakistan. They are viewed not only as an affront to Pakistani sovereignty but also as trigger-happy killers.

Activists from the Pakistani Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami during a protest rally in Karachi on Feb. 11

And this is the environment in which the Davis shooting occurred. Even though some Pakistani civilians apparently came forward and reported that they had been robbed at gunpoint by the men Davis shot, other Pakistani groups like the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) -- the successor to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was presumably banned by the Pakistani government -- have demanded that Davis be hanged. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), an Islamist political party, has also demanded that Davis be hanged and has called for large protests if he is released without a court order. As noted above, TTP spokesman Azam Tarik made a statement demanding that the Pakistani government either hang Davis or hand him over to them. Interest in this issue is not just confined to Islamist groups. There are some right-wing conservative nationalists and even some secular liberals who are asking: "If the United States can give CIA shooter Mir Amal Kansi the death penalty, why can't Pakistan do the same thing to Davis?"

The result is that the Davis case has aroused much controversy and passion in Pakistan. This not only complicates the position of the Pakistani government but also raises the distinct possibility that there will be civil unrest if Davis is released.

Civil Unrest in Pakistan

Like many parts of the developing world, civil unrest in Pakistan can quickly turn to extreme violence. One example that must certainly be on the minds of the security personnel at the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. consulates in Pakistan is the November 1979 incident in which an enraged mob seized and destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. While there were only two Americans killed in that incident -- a Marine security guard shot as he stood on the roof of the embassy and an Army warrant officer who died when an apartment building on the embassy compound was torched -- the fire that the mob set inside the building very nearly killed all the employees who had sought shelter in the embassy's inner safe-haven area. Two local Pakistani staff members were also killed in the fire.

The 1979 attack was said to have been sparked by reports that the U.S. government was behind an assault on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Saudi militants the day before. In reality, the mob that stormed and torched the U.S. Embassy was at least tolerated, if not orchestrated, by the Pakistani government, which was angry that the United States cut off financial aid to the country in April 1979. Not only did the Pakistani government facilitate the busing of large numbers of protesters to the U.S. Embassy, its security forces also stood aside and refused to protect the embassy from the onslaught of the angry mob. The embassy assault was Pakistan's not-so-subtle way of sending a message to the U.S. government.

But U.S. diplomatic facilities have not been the only targets of civil unrest in Pakistan. Following the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, angry mobs attacked not only security forces but also foreign businesses, banks, shops and gasoline stations in the cities of Karachi, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Quetta and throughout the province of Sindh, Bhutto's home province.

Similarly, in February 2006 during the unrest generated by the Mohammed cartoon fiasco, mobs in Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore attacked a wide range of Western business targets. The worst of this violence occurred in Lahore, where a rampaging mob burned down four buildings housing the four-star Ambassador Hotel, two banks, a KFC restaurant franchise and the regional office of Telenor, a Norwegian cell phone company. The protesters also damaged about 200 cars and several storefronts and threw stones through the windows of a McDonald's restaurant, a Pizza Hut and a Holiday Inn. Lahore, incidentally, is where the Davis shooting occurred.

Forecast

Based on this history, the current tension between the United States and Pakistan, public sentiment in Pakistan regarding U.S. security contractors and the possibility of groups like JuD and JeI attempting to take advantage of the situation, there is a very real possibility that Davis' release could spark mob violence in Pakistan (and specifically Lahore). Even if the Pakistani government does try to defuse the situation, there are other parties who will attempt to stir up violence.

Due to the widespread discontent over the issue of U.S. security contractors in Pakistan, if protests do follow the release of Davis, they can be expected to be similar to the protests that followed the Mohammed cartoon case, i.e., they will cut across ethnic and sectarian lines and present a widespread threat.

Physical security measures such as concrete barriers, standoff distances and security cameras can add to a facility's defenses against a terrorist attack, but they really do not pose much of an obstacle to an angry mob intent on overrunning a property -- especially if local and indigenous security forces are unwilling or unable to intervene in a timely fashion and the mob has the time and latitude to assault the facility for a prolonged period. The protesters can scale barriers and their overwhelming numbers can render most security measures useless. Barriers such as hard-line doors can provide some delay, but they can be breached by assailants who possess tools and time.

Additionally, if protesters are able to set fire to the building, as happened at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad in 1979, a safe-haven can become a death trap, especially if the mob can take control of the secondary escape hatch as it did in that incident, trapping the Americans inside the safe-haven.

Commercial facilities are, by their very nature, far more accessible -- and far more vulnerable -- to mob violence than diplomatic facilities. A commercial facility can present a tempting soft target to those who wish to attack a symbol of America without tackling a hard target like a U.S. diplomatic facility, which is designed and built to comply with stringent security standards. If a mob storms a hotel, the local staff will be unable to protect the guests, and conceivably could leave the guests to fend for themselves in the confusion and chaos of a riot. Even worse, they could even facilitate attacks against Americans by pointing them out or providing their room numbers.

Any person identified as an American by such an angry mob could quickly find himself or herself in dire danger. While Americans working for the U.S. government can expect to have some security assistance in getting back to the embassy or to another secure location, non-officials may be left to fend for themselves, especially if they are not registered with the embassy. Non-officials are also not required to abide by the same security rules as officials. While many non-officials consider the U.S. State Department's security rules to be onerous at times, during troubled periods these conservative security rules often serve to keep diplomats out of harm's way.

Once a mob attacks, there often is little that can be done -- especially if the host government either cannot or will not take action to protect the facility being attacked. At that point, the focus should be on preventing injuries and saving lives -- without regard to the physical property. In most cases, when a mob attacks a multinational corporation, it is attacking a symbolic target. KFC restaurants, for example, have been frequent targets of attacks in Pakistan because of the company's association with the United States. In many cases, multinational franchises such as KFC and even some hotels are owned by locals and not Americans, but that does not matter to the mobs, which see nothing but a U.S. symbol.

When an issue such as the Mohammed cartoons, the Bhutto assassination or the release of Raymond Davis spirals into violent protests, the only real precaution that many companies can take is to escape the area and avoid loss of life. The best defense is to use good intelligence in order to learn about the protests in advance, to track them when they occur and then to evacuate personnel before they can be affected by the violence.

U.S. diplomatic facilities and business interests in Pakistan are almost certainly reviewing their contingency plans right now and planning for the worst-case scenario. During such times, vigilance and preparation are vital, as is a constant flow of updated intelligence pertaining to potential demonstrations. Such intelligence can provide time for an evacuation or allow other proactive security measures to be taken. With the current tension between Pakistan and the United States, there might not be much help coming when the next wave of unrest erupts, so keeping ahead of potential protests is critically important.

Share

Get our free weekly Intelligence Reports

Join over 350,000 readers on our free intel reports list.

We will never sell or share your email address or information with anyone.