ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - As Congress mulls cuts to foreign aid, a diplomatic dispute over an American official facing murder charges in Pakistan has emerged as a test of Washington's alliance with Pakistan, a nation that is increasingly viewed as ungrateful among U.S. lawmakers.
Officials in both nations made conciliatory gestures in recent days, and some Pakistani officials indicated the murky case will be resolved with the release of the jailed American, Raymond A. Davis, on the grounds that he has diplomatic immunity. The Pakistani government is expected to endorse that view at a court hearing Thursday. But officials and politicians in both countries depict the row as a bitter setback to two years of efforts to cement a long-term partnership.
Pakistan's insistence that its local courts resolve the case is viewed by the White House as a diplomatic breach too serious to let slide. It has prompted some members of Congress to threaten aid cuts to the nation, whose cooperation is considered crucial to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. President Obama insisted Tuesday that Davis must be freed in accordance with international conventions, a message echoed Wednesday by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who pressed the U.S. case here with Pakistan's senior government officials, army chief and opposition leader.
The incident in Lahore on Jan. 27, when Davis fatally shot two Pakistanis he said were trying to rob him at gunpoint and a U.S. Consulate vehicle killed a bystander, has triggered an outpouring of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. Threats of mass demonstrations from religious parties have made it risky for the weak, U.S.-allied government to appear as if it is bowing to American pressure, a point President Asif Ali Zardari made with Kerry on Wednesday.
The case is "not as simple as it was sometimes being portrayed," Zardari told Kerry, according to a presidential spokesman. Zardari, he said, added that "the strategic partnership and the mutually cordial relations between the two countries should not be allowed to be sacrificed or compromised by predicating them on any single issue."
But U.S. officials have expressed limited patience. A new Gallup poll shows that Pakistan ranks among Americans' least-liked nations, and senior U.S. officials have warned Pakistani leaders that the refusal to release Davis makes them appear unappreciative of billions of dollars in U.S. aid - particularly to a Republican-controlled House of Representatives looking to cut the budget.
One Obama administration official said that a widespread feeling among U.S. officials that assistance to Pakistan has gained little more than heightened anti-Americanism was a "disaster waiting to happen" and that the Davis case could serve as a tipping point. Compromising on the U.S. position, officials said, would undermine any future cases involving diplomatic immunity.
"We need to take a step back from the brink," said the administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomatic nature of the issue. "It's not serving anyone's purpose to keep dragging this out."
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told leaders in Pakistan last week that some lawmakers might offer amendments to "strip" nearly $3 billion in economic and military aid for Pakistan during this week's debate over spending for the remainder of fiscal 2011, according to McKeon spokesman Josh Holly. In meetings last Thursday with senior House Republicans, Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, was told that significant cuts were a real possibility.
Concern about the Davis case has exacerbated "the issues that drove the last election, including budget cuts and fiscal discipline," Holly said.
Funding for the 2012 budget is also at stake. Obama sent his proposal to Congress on Monday, along with a letter from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Republicans asking them not to follow through on promised aid cuts across the board.
Cuts in U.S. assistance to Pakistan could imperil billions of additional dollars of support for Pakistan's teetering economy from international lenders, as well as the survival of its elected government, senior Pakistani government officials said.
Pakistani officials have offered contradictory statements about whether Davis qualifies for immunity. Former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who lost his post in a cabinet reshuffle last week and who is viewed as close to Pakistan's powerful military establishment, said Wednesday that the "official record" did not support the U.S. claim of immunity for Davis, who the U.S. Embassy here says is a member of its "administrative and technical" staff.
A senior Foreign Ministry official said that Qureshi was right but that the government would back the immunity claim at a court hearing Thursday to salvage the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Yet another senior Pakistani government official disputed that, saying that Davis clearly qualified for immunity and that statements otherwise amounted to "hair-splitting."
"Friendly states always deal with such matters to protect friendship," the official said.
To Pakistanis unsympathetic to the U.S. position, including those in the military establishment, the Davis case is a bold symbol of the lack of American trust in Pakistan. According to this view, Davis is a spy or an armed security contractor working covertly, which disqualifies him for immunity.
Threats of aid cuts, combined with what is viewed as insufficient American remorse over the deaths of three Pakistanis in the incident, demonstrate that U.S. vows for a long-term partnership are disingenuous, some here say.
"There are many Raymond Davises running around Pakistan. And why are they running around? Because the Americans don't trust us," said a former security official whose views reflect those of the military establishment. Of threats to funding, the former official said: "This is what we in Pakistan detest, because this is what a transactional relationship is."
Zafar Hilaly, a retired Pakistani diplomat, said that no matter how the Davis case plays out, pressure from the United States would only destabilize the civilian government it claims to back.
"The question is: If you find a friend impaled on a hook, do you help him to get out of it or do you point fingers and laugh at him?" Hilaly said. "I think, frankly, this is the true test of friendship."
DeYoung reported from Washington. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.