Historically, the United States has imposed travel restrictions against foreign diplomats that were from states it considered as hostile. Usually, it did that to reciprocate. For the State Department, imposition of restrictions was a traditional sore point between two governments. The department would not apply such rules to a country with which it had normal diplomatic relations.
So first it was the Soviet Union.
“Soviet diplomats and journalists permanently assigned to Washington, New York or San Francisco, the cities where there are Soviet missions, may travel within a 25-mile radius of the city in which they live without any special notification,” a Department of State’s memo released in 1983 said.
These revised travel regulations, apparently, were presented in a confidential note to the Soviet Embassy. A State Department official then shared that for nearly 30 years, the United States, in response to similar rules initiated by the Soviet Union, has maintained a lists of counties, cities, roads and rivers that are open and those that are closed.
During that time, the government officials did not discuss how they were able to monitor Soviet compliance. But it was assumed that the FBI kept track of Soviet movements in the country and reported any violations to the State Department.
Then it was China.
In 1988, Beijing accused the United States of discriminatory restrictions. The State Department had banned officials at the Chinese consulate in Chicago from travelling beyond the city and its suburbs without permission. The move, it said, was in response to restrictions on the travel of Americans at the United States consulate in the city of Shenyang in northeast China.
Now it’s Pakistan’s turn. An old ally in war against terrorism. A clear sign of growing hostility.
Almost two months ago, I asked a top Pakistani official if the information about travel regulations on Pakistani diplomats was true. The official reluctantly admitted that these new rules could be akin to the “China or Soviet model”.
The model, as it turned out, was to restrict the movements of staffers stationed at the Pakistani embassy in Washington within a 25-miles radius. The proffered excuse was that American diplomats in Pakistan want similar limitations eased up. The full course of the communication was not shared in detail initially, but it was revealed later that the diplomatic staff and their dependents would need permission at least five-days ahead from US authorities to travel outside of the imposed limit.
In the first week of April, when Geo in Washington broke the new s about the possible new rules for Pakistani diplomats in the US, all official channels from both sides contradicted. Coincidentally, a couple of days earlier, US military attache Col. Joseph Hall at the US embassy in Islamabad met an unfortunate road accident where his official vehicle killed a Pakistani motorcyclist and injured another. The imposition of new rules was somehow considered linked to the incident by the Pakistani media.
“In accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the individual, like all diplomats, is immune from the criminal, civil and administrative jurisdiction of Pakistan and cannot be arrested, detained, or banned from leaving the country,” the State Department spokesperson then said. Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry also clarified that the imposition of new rules were not connected with the accident. Col. Hall was pulled out of the country after five weeks.
Throughout this time, Pakistan also maintained that Americans in the country are not permitted to move around freely because of serious security considerations. It was also suggested that the new diplomatic friction stems from the issue of allowing only short-duration visas to American officials and businessmen. Both sides tried to resolve the spat but failed.
The rules were imposed on May 11 by the State Department. Hours later Pakistan’s ministry of Foreign Affiars, in absolute retaliation to these rules, introduced its own travel restriction regime.
The State Department did not officially say what the reason was for introducing this new move. However, a notification from the Pakistani Foreign Office about restrictions for US diplomats revealed that the issue is deeper than what meets the eye. Among other things the FO in its notification said, “it had undertaken every possible action to address the issue of alleged harassment including establishing a fast-track mechanism to address any future complaints”.
Harassment is the peculiar word here. The State Department once again declined to comment, but other senior US officials acknowledged that the resultant travel restriction were in reciprocity, because Pakistan had enforced similar rules.
Pakistan’s ministry of Foreign Affairs, in reaction to US rules, withdrew certain privileges available to American diplomats in Islamabad.
The notification said it was introducing a similar travel permission regime for the US embassy/consulate staff in Pakistan. It further stated that the government was taking away: use of tinted glass on official vehicles and rented transport; use of non-diplomatic number plates on official vehicles; use of diplomatic number plates on unspecified/rented vehicles; use of biometrically unverified/ unregistered cell phone SIMs; Hiring or shifting of rented properties without prior NOC; installing radio communication at residences and safe houses without prior NOCs; overshooting visa validity periods and having multiple passports.
Pakistan’s out-going ambassador to the US Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry confirmed that the travel restrictions for Pakistanis cover two-tier officials stationed in the US bearing visa categories of A1, and A2; and that over 250 individuals altogether were effected by it.
He pleaded that there wasn’t any other resolution except to introduce the mechanism proposed by the Pakistani Foreign Office to address the issue.
Clearly, these solutions are unsatisfactory for the Trump administration. Notwithstanding the fact that there are other outstanding issues as well that need to be resolved to bring the relationship to normalcy. Building trust, and broadening cooperation between the two countries are a must. The talks, both sides claim, are still underway.
“Most US-Pakistan diplomatic crises have been resolved through secret concessions by Pakistan and a face-saving public statement by the US,” says Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani. In an email exchange, he also pointed out that in 2010, Pakistan’s refusal of US requests for visas created a crisis that was resolved by authorising the Pakistani ambassador in the US to grant visas on request. Although the authority was approved by both civil and military authorities, face-saving was done by making the ambassador a scapegoat in Pakistani media.
“There is always a lot more posturing in such matters from the Pakistani side because politicians and generals each wants to appear not to be buckling under American pressure,” says Haqqani.
Such needless grandstanding has promoted anti-Americanism in the country at the expense of partnership against terrorism. Resultantly, the intensified bilateral relationship of the past is now in a new downward spiral, isolating Pakistan diplomatically and otherwise.
“The US-Pakistan relationship has always worked best when both sides concluded that partnership with the other served its own purposes. At this point, I see very little evidence that either side believes this anymore,” says Robert Hathaway, Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Hathaway adds that there were domestic factors on both sides that may preclude the reestablishment of a meaningful partnership. “On the Pakistani side, most Pakistanis have concluded that America cannot be trusted to watch out for, or even take into account, Pakistani interests. Therefore, it would be very difficult for a Pakistani government, either this one or the next, to take public steps that would satisfy US grievances. There is simply very little public constituency in Pakistan for making the changes in Pakistani policy that would be required to satisfy the US.”
On the American side, he further argues, Trump has displayed little interest in Pakistan, and apparently sees no reason to take Pakistani concerns, anxieties, or sentiments into account, let alone modify US actions (especially regarding Afghanistan and India) in a way that would give Pakistan renewed interest in the relationship.
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While Hathaway is hopeful that the current imbroglio will eventually sort itself out, he’s pessimistic about the longer-term viability of what has been, for both sides, a useful partnership. The utmost worry remains that not only the bilateral relationship may not recover from all the damages along the way, but it can further slide down if Washington decides to take incriminating steps against Islamabad.