Advancing a Free Society

Undiplomatic Incident in Pakistan

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Obama Administration has suspended high-level contact with the Pakistani government over detention of an American consulate official who shot and killed two Pakistanis. While circumstances are disputed, reports agree the American fired five shots through the windshield of his car at two men approaching on motorcycles. The American is a former Special Forces Sergeant carrying a diplomatic passport. An Embassy official driving to the scene hit and killed another Pakistani.

Diplomats are immune from prosecution, by longstanding international agreement. The widely accepted practice in these circumstances is for the host government to hand over the diplomat, and the diplomat to be quietly ferried out of the country. Even when the behavior of the diplomat is unseemly and illegal, treaty law is clear on this.

What is less clear is why our government is making such public and dramatic threats to derail relations with an ally crucial to our ability to win the war in Afghanistan. The White House has said President Obama’s planned trip this year to Pakistan is being reconsidered, as are visits to DC by Prime Minister Zardari and other top Pakistani officials for the “strategic dialogue” the Administration has established as the mechanism for pressuring Pakistan to do more in the fight against Islamic extremism that endangers both our countries.

Political embarrassments of this sort are best handled quietly, especially in a country with strong anti-American public sentiment as there is in Pakistan. Why isn’t the Obama Administration handling it quietly? My guess is that we are so dependent on private security contractors for our diplomatic operations that they fear unless they make a major statement, it will put private security operatives elsewhere at risk.

It is possible, even likely, that the American in question is involved in clandestine intelligence work. He carried numerous official identity cards, one of which marked him as an employee of the American consulate, another as a contractor for the U.S. Army. And he absolutely should be handed over to our government.

But our own choices about using contractors rather than military personnel or government guards (such as the Secret Service and State Diplomatic Security) have opened the space for this type of harassment.

The U.S. government employs large numbers of private security personnel authorized to use deadly force. In Iraq, the State Department proposes to hire up to 7,000 contractors to protect our diplomats there as the U.S. military withdraws. President Karzai in Afghanistan is likewise moving against private security companies and we are in the unsatisfying position of defending paramilitary forces operating on our government’s behalf because we have privatized our security responsibilities.

Contractors exist in a legal grey area: they are not combatants but are authorized to use deadly force. Unsatisfactory legal protections for and constraints on security contractors give governments latitude to play politics with the lives of people doing our government’s work.

Our creeping dependence on private security firms has eroded protections for Americans doing dangerous work – whether openly or clandestinely. We are long overdue to bring this problem of our own making under control. The U.S.needs a policy that restores the firebreak between government and non-government uses of deadly force.

(photo credit: U.S. Embassy Pakistan)