By JANE PERLEZ and ERIC SCHMITT New York Times December 17, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Parts of the Pakistani military and intelligence services are mounting what American officials here describe as a campaign to harass American diplomats, fraying relations at a critical moment when the Obama administration is demanding more help to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The campaign includes the refusal to extend or approve visas for more than 100 American officials and the frequent searches of American diplomatic vehicles in major cities, said an American official briefed on the cases.
The problems affected military attachés, C.I.A. officers, development experts, junior level diplomats and others, a senior American diplomat said. As a result, some American aid programs to Pakistan, which President Obama has called a critical ally, are “grinding to a halt,” the diplomat said.
American helicopters used by Pakistan to fight militants can no longer be serviced because visas for 14 American mechanics have not been approved, the diplomat said. Reimbursements to Pakistan of nearly $1 billion a year for counterterrorism have been suspended because the last of the American Embassy’s five accountants left the country this week after his visa expired.
“There’s an incredible disconnect between what they want of us and the fact we can’t get the visas,” the diplomat said.
Pakistani officials acknowledged the situation but said the menacing atmosphere resulted from American arrogance and provocations, like taking photographs in sensitive areas, and a lack of understanding of how divided Pakistanis were about the alliance with the United States.
American and Pakistani officials declined to be identified while speaking about the issues because of their senior positions and the desire not to further inflame tensions.
The campaign comes after months of rising anti-American sentiment here and complaints by the military that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari has grown too dependent on a new $7.5 billion, five-year aid plan from Washington.
It also appears to be an attempt to blunt the planned expansion of the United States Embassy to 800 Americans from 500 in the next 18 months, growth that American officials say is necessary to channel the expanded American assistance.
“They don’t want more Americans here,” another American diplomat said. “They’re not sure what the Americans are doing. It’s pretty pervasive.”
The harassment has grown so frequent that American officials said they viewed it as a concerted effort by parts of the military and intelligence services that had grown resentful of American demands to step up the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Though the United States has been sending large amounts of military assistance to the Pakistani Army, and helping its premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the campaign shows the ambivalence, even “hatred” toward the United States in those quarters, the American official said.
A Pakistani security official, who has kept a tally of many of the incidents, was not sympathetic, saying the Americans had brought on the problems.
“Unfortunately, the Americans are arrogant,” the Pakistani security official said. “They think of themselves as omnipotent. That’s how they come across.”
For instance, he said, the Pakistani police were not harassing American diplomats as they drove up to checkpoints, but rather were responding to provocations by American officials.
He cited a recent report in some Pakistani newspapers that an American diplomat had been taking photographs in a military area of the city of Lahore.
The reports were false, an American Embassy spokesman said. He said the suspected diplomat, a technical support officer, was not carrying a camera.
In another instance, the Pakistani security official said, Americans in an S.U.V. last week fled after the police tried to search their car at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Islamabad, the capital.
The embassy spokesman denied that Americans had fled the checkpoint. “Nonsense, diplomats don’t run away,” he said.
The searching of American diplomatic vehicles at the many checkpoints in the cities has become one of the biggest irritants.
Because diplomatic license plates registered to the embassy would provide an easy target for militants, the Americans reached an accord some time ago with Pakistan’s government that their official plates would be carried inside the car, the spokesman said.
But the absence of plates left the American cars vulnerable to searches at checkpoints, he said. Under international conventions diplomatic cars are not subject to searches, and American diplomats were instructed not to permit searches beyond opening the trunk, the spokesman said.
The Pakistani security official said, “We are in a state of war that calls for extraordinary measures.” His vehicle is searched every morning he goes to the office in Islamabad, and Americans should expect the same, he said.
He also said the Americans should not be surprised about the visa problem. But the issue is now affecting Pakistan’s own interests, American officials said.
At least 135 American diplomats have been refused extensions on their visas, the senior American diplomat said, leaving some sections of the embassy operating at 60 percent of capacity.
One of the most harmful consequences, the diplomat said, is the scaling back of helicopter missions by the Frontier Corps paramilitary troops fighting the Taliban because of a lack of trained American mechanics.
Much of the heightened suspicions about American diplomats appears to revolve around persistent stories in the Pakistani press about the presence of the American security company Blackwater, now called Xe Services, in Pakistan.
The embassy has denied that Xe operates in Pakistan. But those statements have collided with reports that Xe operatives worked for the C.I.A. to load missiles onto drones used to kill Qaeda militants in the tribal areas.
The public distrust toward American officials has led many American diplomats to keep a low profile, and adopt a bunker mentality, American diplomats acknowledge. Americans are warned by security advisers to steer clear of restaurants and shopping areas.
The skittishness between the sides was put aside Wednesday when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, was taken on a helicopter tour of the South Waziristan tribal area by the Pakistani Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to show what the Pakistanis had achieved against the Taliban.
No Pakistani or American reporter was taken along, a sign the Pakistanis preferred to keep the American help there quiet.
[The US State Department has now formally expressed its concern over the situation. This is the same Pakistani Home Ministry which refused the Federal Defence Minister permission to embark on an Official visit to China yesterday, denying or delating visas to US officials – Posted by BC]