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Domani Spero's post about the decommissioning of the old U.S Consulate office building in Karachi, Pakistan, put me in a reflective mood. My little niche in the Department has long been involved in the Department's efforts to better protect the old building and its occupants until it could be replaced with new and more secure facilities, and I find I have a tiny bit of nostalgia for the place now that it's finally been vacated. So I feel like saying a few words over the architectural remains, as it were.
When the modern state of Pakistan was established in 1947, it's capitol was in Karachi. (The current capitol, Islamabad, was created in the early 1960s as a planned city.) The U.S. Mission to Pakistan was then housed in a few rooms above an auto store, a place so disreputable that a visiting U.S. Congressman insisted it should be replaced with a purpose-built embassy.
In 1955, the Department hired a Modernist architect, Richard Neutra, to design a new U.S Embassy in Karachi, one of a series of glass-and-concrete modern embassies it was then commissioning by top-tier architects such as Walter Gropius and Eero Saarinen. The new embassy office building was completed in 1959, and it consisted of a simple concrete rectangle raised on piers, with an eccentric out-sized portico entrance. It was in the middle of the downtown city core, and was set back 60 feet from a major road. Its only security feature was a steel picket fence between the building and the street. You can see it in the undated photo below, exactly as Neutra built it in the late 1950s.
The Department performed the first big security upgrade to the building in the late 1990s, which was to pour concrete over the picket fence, a quick and dirty way to turn the fence into a solid wall. A wall would be a more protective barrier than a fence in the event of a large car-bomb on the street.
The car-bomb came in 2002, a suicide attack that blew out a big hunk of the perimeter wall, but did no significant damage to the building. By chance, a large Banyan tree inside the compound caught most of the flying concrete chunks.
All the building's windows were blown in, but because the window glass had been treated with shatter-resistant film, that wasn't highly dangerous (as you can see from the post-blast photo of the consulate lobby, below). No one inside the consulate or its grounds was injured, but a dozen people on the street outside - guards, police, and passersby - were killed.
After that incident, the main consulate office building was given up as impossible to protect. All staff were moved into new offices that were created inside a former warehouse that is located behind the main building and a bit farther away from the street. The cost to fit out and harden that warehouse was over $10 million.
In 2003 and 2004 there were more terrorist attacks on the consulate, including an unsuccessful attempted vehicle bomb and a successful attack on the police who guarded the vehicle approaches. During those years the Department sought to acquire a site outside the downtown core on which a new consulate could be constructed, but it was blocked by a lack of cooperation on the part of the Pakistani government.
In 2006 two consulate employees, a local driver and Facility Maintenance Officer David Foy, were killed when a suicide bomber attacked their car as it stopped at the last checkpoint before entering the consulate perimeter. A Pakistani Army Ranger detailed to the checkpoint was also killed. After their deaths, the Pakistani government finally approved the Department's purchase of a new construction site, on which the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations subsequently built the new consulate office and housing complex that opened this week.
The U.S. Mission in Karachi at last has a reasonably safe place in which to live and work, and that's a huge accomplishment. But we ought to be mindful that that result came about only after many years of effort and sacrifice by Americans and Pakistanis alike.