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US to spend $1 billion on embassy expansions in Pakistan, Afghanistan

Diplomatic presence on the scale of Iraq prompts concerns in Pakistan about American meddling

By Saeed ShahMcClatchy Newspapers, Warren P. StrobelMcClatchy Newspapers / May 28, 2009



Islamabad

The US 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, US officials said Wednesday.

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The White House has asked Congress for – and seems likely to receive – $736 million to build a new US embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for US government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital.

The scale of the projects rivals the giant US 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 Rodham Clinton.

Other major projects are planned for Kabul, Afghanistan; and for the Pakistani cities of Lahore and Peshawar. In Peshawar, the US government is negotiating the purchase of a five-star hotel that would house a new US 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 Qaeda and the Taliban operate, is vital to US national security. He's ordered thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan and is proposing substantially increased aid to both countries.

Macro buildings to micro manage?

In Pakistan, however, large parts of the population are hostile to the US 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."

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