Thursday, May 28, 2015

Was It All That Bad To Have a Few American Center Libraries Torched? Discuss

A Golden Oldie, USIS Library Karachi


















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Two weeks ago the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD) repeated some very old arguments that blame the current decline in public diplomacy programs on the post-1985 creation of security standards for overseas diplomatic missions, as well as the replacement of old embassy office buildings with so-called Fortress Embassies, and - most of all - a 1999 law that prohibits having stand-alone American Centers outside those new embassies without a waiver signed by the SecState. I sympathize with the goal of retaining stand-alone American Centers, but the ACPD's arguments are badly in need of updating and fact-checking.

Which brings me to last Tuesday's post at Whirled View about American Diplomacy: What Went Wrong and What Can Be Done About It? Once again, it seems, those Fortress Embassies are What Went Wrong to public diplomacy programs.

The post 9/11 explosion of fortress embassies [phrasing?] on the outskirts of cities has just exacerbated US diplomats’ inability to function abroad effectively. Diplomacy is foremost about interacting with people - and when diplomats are sidelined to distant suburbs and the people they need to talk with work in the city center and are not welcome in Embassy offices chances are that those discussions and meetings will be far and few between, if they take place at all.

-- snip --

The report [of the Academy of American Diplomacy, American Diplomacy at Risk] ignores America’s fortress embassies but they too are a part of the equation.

What good does it do to have crusader castles and even the most qualified diplomats based in the equivalents of the outer reaches of the universe? True, such embassies provide a single hardened location supposedly easier to defend from terrorists but wouldn’t it be better - perhaps even safer - if certain functions were separated into smaller, less visible but more accessible units scattered throughout a city? Was it even all that bad to have a very few American Center libraries torched over the decades as happened in volatile places like Pakistan years ago but the rest of the larger mission - including the Embassy and Consulates - kept out of harm’s way?

The not-all-your-eggs-in-one basket argument has merit, I think, at least in the comparatively safe places where the host government is capable of providing the U.S. mission with a reasonable level of protection. Where it isn't capable or willing to do so, then all our eggs are better off collected into one big Fortress protected by our own resources.

As for the rhetorical question about torched American Center libraries, well, someone must be kidding. Was it all that bad? Yes, it was pretty damn bad when mobs attacked our libraries in Pakistan in 1979, with loss of lives in every case. And it didn't act as a safety value for the rest of the mission, either, since our Embassy and Consulates were also attacked. The only difference was that the Libraries in Lahore and Rawalpindi were more vulnerable than the rest of the mission facilities, and so they were more easily destroyed. Mobs also tried to burn the Libraries in Karachi and Peshawar, but those were collocated with our Consulate office buildings and the attackers were stopped by massive police interventions.

A survivor of the 1979 attack in Lahore described it to CNN in 2012:

A mob of perhaps 5,000 marched to the American Center, burned it and then marched to the consulate and attacked us. Battled by 300 Pakistani policemen, they burned our cars and tried, unsuccessfully, to burn down the consulate itself -- with us inside. There were enough police to keep the crowd at bay, but not enough to disperse them quickly. After several hours, the crowd left and the police took us out in an armed convoy.

The attack on the Lahore Library was described in detail by one of its local employees, Tanweer Ahmed Khan, in an article he wrote for a USIA commemorative history, Fire and Luck at the American Center, Lahore:

On November 21, 1979, in Lahore, Pakistan, the three American USIS officers — BPAO Douglas H. Smith, BCAO V.Miro Morville, and Program Officer Lester R. Velez — were out for lunch as was FSN Administrative Specialist Mohammad Ajmal Khan. Suddenly, a mob of 5,000 rioters attacked the American Center. At that time, there were no high protective walls, no steel fences on perimeter walls, no guard booths, and no security doors on the third floor where the staff worked.

When the mob first appeared, our security guard in the lobby pulled the steel shutter down to close off the entrance. In response, the crowd tore down the electrical poles and used them to break open the shutters and force their way into the building. Rais-uddin Zuberi, our budget analyst and second in command in the Administrative Section, called Ajmal Khan at his residence and informed him of the situation. Ajmal told him to have the staff move immediately onto the roof of the building, which was the designated safe haven.

What really impressed me at that time was that, within minutes, Ajmal, without caring for his own life, showed up at the American Center building — entering through a back service entrance — to help us out of the life-threatening situation. He masterfully took charge of defending the lives of the 50 staff members and the visiting library patrons, who were afraid to leave the building.

Ajmal led the group to the third floor and then onto the roof. He counted the staff members and asked if anyone was missing. Someone said that Umar Din, a library security guard, was missing. Everyone got panicky. Fortunately, a few of us who had returned from lunch just before the attack had seen Umar Din having lunch at a nearby restaurant. By this time, the crowd was swarming inside the American Center building. They set the lower floors of the building on fire.

The invaders then climbed to the library, destroying books and furniture. Huge black clouds of smoke traveled to our offices on the third floor and then circulated in the air-conditioning ducts. The smoke was so great, they started to jump out of the building. Some of them were injured. After a while, the leaders of the mob announced that all Pakistanis should come down and promised we would not be harmed. However, the Americans would not be spared. Since there were no Americans in the building, we evacuated without any trouble.

Twenty years have passed since this incident, but I still think about what would have happened if an American officer had been with us in the building. None of us would have wanted to leave an American in a life-threatening situation. I always thank God that no American was in the building at that time.

Was that really all that bad? Yes, it was, and it would have been much worse for the U.S. and local employees as well as the Library patrons if the Americans had not been out at lunch when the attack began.

The American employees were present when the American Center in Islamabad was attacked by a mob in 1989:
Five demonstrators were shot and killed Sunday and 80 people were seriously injured when Pakistani riot police opened fire on thousands of protesters attacking the U.S. cultural center here after a demonstration against the British novel "The Satanic Verses" turned into a rock-throwing anti-American melee.

None of the three Americans or 15 Pakistani employees inside the center at the time were hurt, but thousands of dollars in damage was done to the building, which houses an American library and sponsors cultural events designed to reinforce U.S.-Pakistani ties.

"It was a peaceful demonstration that went wrong," said Kent Obee, head of the U.S. Information Service in Pakistan. Obee was inside the building waiting to receive a petition from the protesters when the riot erupted.

A key factor in the survival of our employees in that attack was that the Center had been physically hardened up Fortress Embassy-style by USIA's in-house security element. Nevertheless, five protestors were shot to death literally on the door step of the American Center on that occasion.

Ten years later, the same American Center in Islamabad was fired on with incendiary and fragmentation rockets, injuring a local guard and nearly killing a Library employee. Not long after our invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Center was closed - given up on as an indefensible location and a magnet for attacks - and public diplomacy operations moved into the U.S. Embassy compound inside Islamabad's diplomatic enclave, where they basically withered away.

Of course, all that and more happened in Pakistan, and Pakistan is an especially difficult situation. I'd be curious to know how many physical attacks - drive-by shootings, mobs, bombs, arson, and so on - have occurred at all of our public diplomacy platforms around the world over time. I'd be even more curious to know whether those platforms have suffered attacks out of proportion to whatever percentage they are of all U.S. mission non-collocated facilities. If, just to make up numbers for the sake of illustration, they are ten percent of our non-collocated facilities but account for twenty percent of all attacks on those facilities, then that would tell us something about their comparative risk. Couldn't the ACPD collect those statistics? That might help them more than a White Paper full of old arguments when it comes to engaging the State Department on ways to preserve stand-alone American Centers.

To return to Whirled View's post, it concluded with this plea:
Wouldn’t it make more sense for economic and commercial functions to be located in financial and business districts? After all, one fifth of all American jobs now depend on international trade.

A cultural section in an American Center near major educational and arts institutions, information sections close to Fleet Streets and political officers as close to the Foreign Ministries, presidential offices and parliament as possible? Even with the Internet, the most important business takes places directly and confidentially between people - not transmitted to the world via wifi.

In short, “American Diplomacy at Risk” provides the opening for a foreign affairs discussion that needs to begin now. It is nearly 14 years since 9/11. Will anyone listen?

Now, 9/11 had nothing to do with the “explosion" of Fortress Embassies. The Capitol Security Construction Program was mandated by a law that was passed in 1999, although it wasn’t until 2001 that new construction kicked into high gear. See this publicly available source of information, pages 11 and 12, for a concise summary of that program. And, even though security was the prime motive, that program also addresses a long-term problem of decrepit and unsafe diplomatic office buildings; ones that are too small, too old, too expensive to maintain, fire traps, and seismic risks. Haiti and Kathmandu are just two posts that have benefited from new offices and residences that didn’t fall down when earthquakes struck.

And by the way, can we please stop exaggerating the remoteness of all those new embassies and consulates? After browsing the nineteen press kits for completed new embassies that are available on OBO's website, I see that few of them describe new missions in distant suburbs or outer reaches of the universe. At least six of those new embassy locations sound like they are very accessible.

In Rabat, the new embassy is located three miles from the city center on a major thoroughfare. In Vientiane it is south of downtown, but with a stand-alone American Center in the downtown core. (How about that? Someone must have requested a waiver of the collocation requirement.) In Belgrade it is south of the city center. In Cotonou “the new Embassy will be located on an 8.8 acre site along one of the town’s main thoroughfares - Boulevard de la Marina. The site is in close proximity to other diplomatic facilities and ministerial buildings near the town center, and 2 kilometers away from the airport and seaport.” In Guangzhou it is in the central business district adjacent to the Pearl River.

Additionally, the new embassy that is now under construction in London is inside the city, although on the edge. In Pristina, OBO is breaking ground on a new embassy inside the central city.

In Mexico City, which is the biggest project OBO has going on after London, the new embassy location is just as centrally located as the current Embassy and American Center. The embassy's press release noted that "the Polanco site was chosen due to its location, with proximity to government offices, services, and major residential areas."

Google maps tells me the construction site is only 4.5 km from the current embassy. Would any prospective Public Diplomacy client in Mexico City find it any harder to get to the New Polanco site than to the current Ben Franklin Library in the Zona Rosa? I can't see how.

Thirty years after the first Fortress Embassies were built, it is high time to acknowledge that OBO has refined the process and greatly improved its product.

In fairness to OBO, it seems that it has listened. Now, it's time for our public diplomacy advocates to say something new.

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