The arrest of a U.S. diplomat in Pakistan on murder charges threatens to worsen a difficult relationship with Pakistan, a strategic ally in the war on terror.
Raymond Davis, a U.S. consular staffer in the Lahore region of Pakistan, was arrested on Jan. 27 after he allegedly shot and killed two armed men on motor bikes whom, Davis claims, were trying to rob him. A third man, a bystander, apparently died when he was run-over by a U.S. Embassy van that was en route to rescue Davis.
Davis says he was forced to open fire in self-defense. But Pakistani authorities have rejected that claim. "He gave no chance to them to survive. It was cold-blooded murder," says Lahore police chief Aslam Tareen.
The incident is now threatening to ignite a full-blown international crisis.
"There is intense frustration, if not bitterness on both sides of this relationship,” said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. “On the American side there's a sense that Pakistan must do more. On the Pakistani side, there is a sense we're doing it already, we're doing more than you are."
President Obama may have fed some fuel to the diplomatic fire at his Tuesday press conference when he indicated Davis is a diplomat, protected by diplomatic immunity.
"We've got a very simple principle here that every country in the world that is party to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations has upheld in the past and should uphold in the future,” The president said. “And that is if -- if our diplomats are in another country, then they are not subject to that country's local prosecution.".
The incident occurs at a time of diplomatic re-aligning in both countries, against a back-drop of regime-shaking upheaval in the Middle East. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to announce this Friday the appointment of Marc Grossman to the position of special envoy for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, a job that was held by Richard Holbrooke until his unexpected death late last year.
And in Afghanistan, President Asif Ali Zardari is facing pressures from many interests - pressures that are often in direct opposition to US demands. The Taliban, for example, has promised to punish with death, anyone who helps to affect the release of Raymond Davis.
In addition, Zardari faces, as did his predecessor, Pervez Musharref, continued anti-U.S. sentiment among the Pakistani people for his willingness, reluctant or not, to allow U.S. drone attacks against Taliban hideouts.
Zardari is also attempting to fend off other political opponents. Former President Musharref, now in exile in London, has expressed an interest in running for President again in 2013. But Zardari has erected a blockade to those aspirations - in the form of an arrest warrant. Zardari believes that Musharref was complicit in the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Benezhir Bhutto- who also happened to be Zardari's wife.
It is in this context, into this maelstrom, that U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee flew on Tuesday. He arrived in Pakistan seeking the release of Raymond Davis and offering these calming words, "My hope is that we can find a way forward together without politics, without getting into ideologies or other things."
Whether those words are heard in the hurricane of war and upheaval rattling the region remains to be seen.