Islambad diaries: Here comes McCain, now start the tantrums

Published: August 17, 2011


The good cop-bad cop routine has become such a cliche of television cop shows that it is unlikely anyone would still bother employing it. Anyone other than the US, that is. When the Americans desperately need something from Pakistan, like the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, they send John Kerry, a master of diplomacy and equivocation, here. If they just want to complain and throw a tantrum the ill-tempered John McCain is deployed.

That was the case during his August 13 visit as McCain bluntly told Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani that Pakistan needed to end its recent policy of requiring US embassy officials, including Ambassador Cameron Munter, to get no-objection certificates whenever they travelled within the country.

Unlike the Raymond Davis case, where the release of their man was so vital that the Americans paid out millions of dollars in blood money, the US is in no mood to compromise over this. A government official confirmed a rumour spreading around town that the US had threatened to take a tit-for-tat action and impose similar restrictions on the travel of Pakistani embassy officials in the US. But the government official also added that he thought the threat was just bluster.

The US State Department also issued an advisory to citizens traveling to Pakistan saying that American journalists and other workers were being falsely identified as spies. Soon after, development consultant Warren Weinstein, who is the country director for firm JE Austin, was kidnapped at gunpoint from his home in Lahore. The bigger problem for the US, however, is that its actual spies are being correctly identified as spies in the media. The third CIA station chief in just over a year arrived recently in the country after his predecessors had to leave after being named in the media and annoying Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

There have been a number of incidents in recent months that the US Embassy has managed to keep out of the press. First, an embassy official of Pakistani origin got into a late-night incident at a fast food restaurant in Islamabad that led to the police being called and then another embassy official got into an altercation at a private party in Lahore that also attracted the attention of the police. In both cases the Americans were able to hush up the incidents but they have begun strictly enforcing a 1 am curfew for all its embassy employees.

Sending senators like McCain to meet with civilian leaders is more of a publicity ploy to get the message across that the US is not happy with the state of relations between the two countries. For more pressing matters, it is the military that is contacted behind closed doors. Last Wednesday, Munter met Kayani and told him in no uncertain terms that the US wanted an operation launched in North Wazirstan and permission to open a consulate in Balochistan. Kayani demurred on both points and said those were decisions only the civilian government could take.

As Munter well knows, whenever Kayani invokes the supremacy of the civilian set-up he is actually delivering a resounding no to what is being asked of him. The word no has now become the staple of Pakistan-US relations with both sides making demands but getting no positive response.


Nadir Hassan

An Islamabad based journalist who tweets at @Nadir_Hassan.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.