Islamabad’s green lights
Pakistanis complain, and rightly so, of their ill treatment on arrival at US airports. They are starting at the wrong end, in my view. They should first complain against their treatment by Western, especially American and Canadian, embassies back home in Pakistan.
Anyone applying for a visa immediately comes under suspicion. Unless he can prove otherwise, to the consular officials, the applicant is undertaking the trip with the intention of never ever coming back. He can give any number of reasons to allay their apprehensions, but the finger of suspicion remains pointed at him. They wonder if he is bank-worthy or if he is cheating, being in cahoots with his bank manager who has signed for him a statement that shows him to be financially sound, when he is not? Could he be smuggling drugs?
Is he a crypto-terrorist (one used to come under suspicion as a communist manqué during the Cold War) and a secret worshipper of Osama bin Laden? Is he likely to blow up the San Francisco bridge or perhaps the United Nations headquarters itself (in the latter case the present administration should actually give him a VIP visa)? I am not sure how many of the applicants are refused a visa by the US embassy in Islamabad, but the number has to be very large. The hefty fee paid when making an application is, of course, not refundable. Such fees now constitute a major source of earning for Western embassies in Islamabad.
I know that my late cousin Dr Abdul Rashid, a retired and much-respected colonel in the Army Medical Corps, who was well into his seventies, was refused a US visa he had sought for visiting his daughter, a US citizen, married and long settled in this country. He was heartbroken. He died not long after. My own sister Sorayya, wife of KH Khurshid, who wanted to travel to Canada to see her only son was refused a visa the first time she applied at the Canadian embassy on the ground that she had “no roots in Pakistan”. She was advised by a friend to apply again. She did and this time she got it. I wish I could find a more charitable explanation for the first refusal but profit would appear to be the only explanation. Since all visa agreements are mutual, it is only logical and fair that Pakistani missions should accord the same treatment to foreigners that their countries accord to Pakistanis. Will that happen? Yes, but in a week of Sundays.
Last week, the American vicerine for South Asia, Christina Rocca, was in Islamabad. In the next couple of days, she had been received by President Gen Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, Foreign Secretary Riaz H Khokhar and, I take it, some of the brass from the garrison town of Rawalpindi. Ms Rocca, whose pre-State Department career was entirely intelligence-related, is number four in the pecking order at the State Department. There is one deputy secretary of state, five undersecretaries and a host of assistant secretaries, of whom she is one. According to protocol, she should be received by an official no higher than an Additional Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Self-respect is all that a poor country has and if it loses that then it has nothing left to lose.
The Western embassies in Islamabad, led by the American embassy, have the run of the place. A first secretary is able to gain access to officials three times higher than his level. Acceptance of private diplomatic hospitality used to be strictly controlled by the Foreign Office; but not since Zia ul Haq’s time, when all doors were thrown open and it became common for officials as high as heads of ministries and departments to sup with stripling second and even third secretaries. Zia ul Haq once threw a farewell party for a first secretary of the American embassy. In India, protocol has always been strictly controlled. Ms Rocca, who also makes periodic visits to New Delhi, is received by an additional secretary or, at best, by the foreign secretary. That is her ceiling. The access of US embassy officials to the External Affairs ministry is maintained according to strictly laid-down protocol. Has that affected US-India relations adversely, our open-door decision-makers should ask themselves? The answer is no, not at all. In fact, the more dignity you show, the greater the respect with which you will be treated.
Since everyone is telling Shaukat Aziz what he should do, let me also join that crowd, but all I want to ask him is to restore Pakistan’s dignity when it comes to the Christina Roccas of the world. Let us remain civil but correct. As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto once said, “Pakistan is not a fly on the map of South Asia that can be swatted out.” And I will never forget what he said when I suggested that he kindly find time for the No. 3 man from Newsweek. “I will try”, he replied, “but remember that I am No. 1 here”.
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent