Thursday, May 28, 2009

Big Foot Coming Down in Islamabad

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McClatchy has a story today on the Obama administration's plans for new construction at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan (pronounced "Puck-e-staan," I think).

See: Iraq redux? Obama seeks funds for Pakistan super-embassy, but ignore the hyperventilating headline. The new facilities are merely replacements for worn-out embassy office and residential buildings that were first built in the 1960s and which are far too small to meet current needs. Nothing "super" is in the plans, not as I read the publically available sources of information.

The Global and Mail carried the same story today, but with a little bit more detail. See: Islamabad to get giant U.S. embassy; Massive expansion demonstrates significance of Pakistan, but sure to raise anti-U.S. sentiment.

Some key quotes from the McClatchy story:

The White House has asked Congress for — and seems likely to receive — $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital.

-- snip --

Other major projects are planned for Kabul, Afghanistan; and for the Pakistani cities of Lahore and Peshawar. In Peshawar, the U.S. government is negotiating the purchase of a five-star hotel that would house a new U.S. consulate.

-- snip--

In Baghdad and other dangerous locales, U.S. diplomats have sometimes found themselves cut off from the population in heavily fortified compounds surrounded by blast walls, concertina wire and armed guards.

"If you're going to have people live in a car bomb-prone place, you are driven to not have a light footprint," said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. Neumann called the planned expansions "generally pretty justified."

In Islamabad, according to State Department budget documents, the plan calls for the rapid construction of a $111 million new office annex to accommodate 330 workers; $197 million to build 156 permanent and 80 temporary housing units; and a $405 million replacement of the main embassy building. The existing embassy, in the capital's leafy diplomatic enclave, was badly damaged in a 1979 assault by Pakistani students.

-- snip --

A senior State Department official confirmed that the U.S. plan for the consulate in Peshawar involves the purchase of the luxury Pearl Continental hotel. [TSB Note: the word "luxury" is overstating it by a large measure. The Pearl Continental would make a middle-grade Holiday Inn, at best.] The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

The Pearl Continental is the city's only five-star hotel, set in its own expansive grounds, with a swimming pool. It's owned by Pakistani tycoon Sadruddin Hashwani.

I really like Ambassador Neumann's statement, "If you're going to have people live in a car bomb-prone place, you are driven to not have a light footprint." Truly, when the U.S. government sends more than 1,000 employees to live and work in places as dangerous as Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore, we do indeed need to come down with a heavy security footprint and the usual aesthetic niceties be damned.

My personal philosophy of embassy physical security - incongruous as it may be to have a philosophy of such a thing - is that it should be blended into the landscaping and architecture, hidden from view. It should be, as Lucius Annaeus Seneca said of art, an imitation of nature. Nevertheless, if there was ever a place where the subtle approach ought to be ditched in favor of obvious and overt protection, it is Pakistan today. $736 million can buy us a lot of Old School protection.


Evan said...

It seems like there are some decent ways to ensure physical security without making a place look like an inside-out prison. Moats are quite decorative, for example, and very effective. And there are plenty of coherent architectural styles other than SuperMax that still deemphasize windows and such.

There's an argument to be made for looking like a hard target, of course, but there's the counterpoint that overtly hard targets might just encourage people to test them. And Pakistan's various extremist movements don't exactly have a history of being deterred by visibly stronger forces.

TSB said...


I hope we'll give them the maximum possible deterrence. The embassy in Islamabad hasn't been tested by attackers since 1979, unlike the much more vulnerable consulate in Karachi, which has been attacked repeatedly. Personally, the more I think about Pakistan the more I'm glad I work in DC.