By Saeed Shah and Warren P. Strobel | McClatchy Newspapers
ISLAMABAD — The U.S. is embarking on a $1 billion crash program to expand its diplomatic presence in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, another sign that the Obama administration is making a costly, long-term commitment to war-torn South Asia, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
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.
The scale of the projects rivals the giant U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which was completed last year after construction delays at a cost of $740 million.
Senior State Department officials said the expanded diplomatic presence is needed to replace overcrowded, dilapidated and unsafe facilities and to support a “surge” of civilian officials into Afghanistan and Pakistan ordered by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
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.
Funds for the projects are included in a 2009 supplemental spending bill that the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed in slightly different forms.
Obama has repeatedly stated that stabilizing Pakistan and Afghanistan, the countries from which al Qaida and the Taliban operate, is vital to U.S. national security. He’s ordered thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan and is proposing substantially increased aid to both countries.
In Pakistan, however, large parts of the population are hostile to the U.S. presence in the region — despite receiving billions of dollars in aid from Washington since 2001 — and anti-American groups and politicians are likely to seize on the expanded diplomatic presence in Islamabad as evidence of American “imperial designs.”
“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 country’s 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.”
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, your 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.
The U.S. government also plans to 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 accommodation.
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. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
The Pearl Contintental 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.
Peshawar is an important station for gathering intelligence on the tribal area that surrounds the city on three sides and is a base for al Qaida and the Taliban. The area also will be a focus for expanded U.S. aid programs, and the American mission in Peshawar has already expanded from three U.S. diplomats to several dozen.
In all, the administration requested $806 million for diplomatic construction and security in 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,” said Jonathan Blyth of the State Department’s Overseas Buildings Operations bureau. “The embassy is in need of upgrading and expansion to meet our future mission requirements.”
A senior Pakistani official said the expansion has been under discussion for three years. “Pakistanis understand the need for having diplomatic missions expanding and the Americans always have had an enclave in Islamabad,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “Will some people exploit it? They will.”
In Kabul, the U.S. government is negotiating an $87 million purchase of a 30- to 40-acre parcel of land to expand the embassy. The Senate version of the appropriations bill omits all but $10 million of those funds.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)