The United States plans to build a massive new embassy in Pakistan's capital, adding another several adjacent properties to the already sprawling compound to expand office space and accommodate 400 to 500 apartments, according to diplomatic insiders.
With large portions of Pakistan's population deeply hostile to the United States, the Islamabad project is sure to draw the ire of those who believe Washington has "imperial designs" on the region.
The scale of the project rivals the giant U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which was controversially completed at a cost of $740-million (U.S.), making it the biggest American mission overseas to date.
The project would be mirrored by an ambitious upgrade and expansion of the Kabul mission, putting a $2-billion-plus price tag on a revamped diplomatic presence for the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. President Barack Obama has repeatedly stated that stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan, home of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, is vital for U.S. security.
The State Department is seeking urgent financing for the Islamabad embassy project, with a little-noticed bill currently before Congress.
"This is a replay of Baghdad," said Khurshid Ahmad, a member of Pakistan's upper house of parliament for Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the two main religious political parties. "This [Islamabad embassy]is more [space]than they should need. It's for the micro and macro management of Pakistan, and using Pakistan for pushing the American agenda in Central Asia."
The mission houses a large military and intelligence contingent as well as diplomats. The site would expand by 18.5 hectares and buildings would be knocked down and reconstructed, according to diplomatic insiders, according to diplomats familiar with the plan, who could not be named as they were not authorized to speak to media.
In addition to the expansion in Islamabad, the United States would revamp its consular buildings in the eastern city of Lahore and in Peshawar, the regional capital of the militancy-plagued North West Frontier Province. The consulate in the southern megacity of Karachi has just been relocated into a new purpose-built structure.
According to diplomatic and business sources, the U.S. plan for the mission in Peshawar involves the purchase of the luxury Pearl Continental hotel, the only five-star hotel in the city, set in expansive grounds.
The hotel is owned by Pakistani tycoon Sadruddin Hashwani. The purchase is "pretty much done, though it's not yet complete," according to a businessman familiar with the Pearl Continental deal, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.The Peshawar consulate would be moved to the hotel, which would also provide living accommodation for U.S. staff.
Peshawar is an important intelligence station, for gathering information on the tribal area that surrounds the city on three sides. The tribal area is the base for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Jonathan Blyth, director of external affairs at the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations in Washington, part of the State Department, acknowledged that a new home for the Peshawar consulate was sought but declined to comment on the hotel plan.
The State Department has asked Congress for $900-million in financing for upgrading the U.S. presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Almost all of it is for Pakistan. Mr. Blyth said the money covered "a comprehensive facility program for Pakistan."
"For the strong commitment the U.S. is making in the country of Pakistan, we need the necessary platform to fulfill our diplomatic mission," Mr. Blyth said. "The embassy is in need of upgrading and expansion to meet our future mission requirements."
The new embassy complex should allow all American diplomats to live on site. The current mission is housed inside Islamabad's high-security "diplomatic enclave," but some staff live in ordinary residential areas of the town., as there is not enough accommodation for everyone in the compound. Around 750 American staff are based in Islamabad.
In Kabul, the United States is first looking to secure more land around the embassy before seeking funds to build. The money in the bill includes $87-million for land purchase.
Some in the region, including, many believe, Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, are betting that Washington will seek an exit from Afghanistan. There are allegations that the ISI is maintaining ties with the Afghan Taliban insurgents for that reason, believing they would sweep to power once the U.S. departs. But the embassy plans suggest otherwise.
"This just shows that the Americans are going to be in Afghanistan for rather a long time," said Kamran Shafi, a columnist with Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.
"Anyone who thinks the Taliban are 'strategic assets,' to increase Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan, had better think again." Special to The Globe and Mail
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