Standing in the leafy courtyard of the US Embassy here, it is hard to imagine this country may be the most dangerous posting in the world for American diplomats.
The government compound looks more like a country club. Lush gardens surround an Olympic-sized swimming pool, tennis courts, a restaurant, and a softball field. Then a siren rings, and embassy staff pour out of the building. "Secure all classified materials. Close all windows," blares the voice of a Marine guard over the loudspeaker. "At this time you are advised to evacuate."
Staff pile into armored vans, guided by agents from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the State Department agency that oversees America's embassies and diplomats. "Squeeze in! Squeeze in!" shouts one agent.
The cars prepare to drive off, when another bell sounds. The drill is over. Regional Security Officer Michael Evanoff checks his watch: It took less than six minutes to empty the compound.
The US-led war in Afghanistan may have toppled the Taliban and ousted Al Qaeda terrorists from their long-time sanctuary. But it also flushed the problem into neighboring Pakistan, where homegrown extremist groups are now working alongside Al Qaeda, putting US installations and the small American community here under constant threat of attack.
"This is now the epicenter of terrorism," says Mr. Evanoff, who oversees security for the embassy and its consulates here. "It really is. This is the only country I know in the world that has so many groups that are against the US or Western ideals."
Last year alone, these groups pulled off seven strikes against the US community here, including a March church bombing in Islamabad that killed five - among them an American woman from the embassy and her daughter - and a June truck bomb at the Karachi consulate that killed 14 Pakistanis.
Last month, the Karachi outpost avoided another major attack when local police arrested Yemeni national Waleed bin Attash and five other alleged Al Qaeda members with 300 pounds of explosives. It's believed that Mr. Attash, suspected of playing a leading role in the USS Cole attack, planned to bomb the consulate.
The routine attacks and constant threats - intelligence officials and diplomatic security staff often analyze as many as five a day - have turned the US installations here into virtual fortresses. The sprawling compound in Islamabad is surrounded by thick brick ramparts, topped with razor wire, and reinforced by steel pillars to keep a vehicle from smashing through.
Staff members have been trained to check their cars for bombs and their residences for suspicious behavior. In 2001, two diplomats found small explosive devices had been attached to their cars using magnets.
The embassy staff here drills routinely, practicing scenarios that range from car bombs to a sudden attack by an angry mob. In 1979, Pakistani students, enraged by a false radio report which claimed the US had bombed Islam's holy site at Mecca, stormed the embassy and burned much of it to the ground, endangering dozens of diplomats holed up in a reinforced area. Hence, explains Evanoff, the current plan to evacuate.
Ambassador Nancy Powell travels through town in an armored car, with two diplomatic security agents always at her side. When she visits consulates in Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi, she is trailed by pickup trucks packed with elite, US-trained Pakistani forces. To deter would-be attackers, few of her movements are ever announced in advance. "I do a lot of things at the last minute," says Ambassador Powell. "My official events have not been hampered by this. I go where I need to go."
Yet employees here say the overall stress of the environment, coupled with daily practices like checking one's car for bombs, do take a toll. "It's always in the back of your mind," says Angie Bryan, the embassy's refugee coordinator. "You don't go out in town and feel overt hostility, but you know that the ... people here who don't like us are willing to do something about it."
Diplomatic security agents do more than just guard diplomatic staff - they also review a daily flood of threats. And they've had some success averting tragedy. A bomb attack planned for another Protestant church on Christmas Eve never took place, after Evanoff and his staff got wind of the scheme and contacted local officials.
"It was the best Christmas present we could have had," Evanoff says. Yet the constant threats have affected the US Embassy's effectiveness in other ways.
The State Department has dramatically reduced staff in Pakistan, even though President Pervez Musharraf has became a valued ally in the US war on terror. That means temporary personnel often make up the bulk of the staff. More than 7,000 temporary staffers have come through Pakistan since Sept. 11, a State Department record.
US Ambassador Nancy Powell admits the constant turnover puts a strain on contacts in a country where personal relationships with local officials are crucial. "For those working on economic assistance, or on our law-enforcement programs, making the contacts and getting up to speed on the political situation in Pakistan is absolutely key," she says. "And [turnover] is a detriment."
Employees also grumble about the fact that Pakistan has been a singles-only posting since Sept. 11, meaning partners and children must stay home. Coping with loneliness is a common theme at the American Club bar, though most diplomats say they would make the same decision to come if they had it to do over.
"I think it is a question virtually everyone asks themselves," says Deputy Chief of Mission William Monroe, who left his family behind when he came to work in Pakistan. "You feel you are doing something so important that it is hard to say, gee, I wish I hadn't done this."