The Pakistani government is refusing to extend visas to American government, military personnel, and contractors – a decision that punctuates a wave of anti-American sentiment here and threatens billions of dollars in US aid programs.
Pakistani officials have not granted visa extensions to about 135 individuals working for the US government here, as well as a number of Defense Department personnel trying either to extend or obtain a visa, according to a senior US embassy official in Islamabad. As a result, the planned aid programs are beginning to be scrapped, the official says.
The diplomatic snub comes as the US embassy expands the number of American personnel working here to oversee $1.5 billion per year in non-military assistance to Pakistan. The aid is part of an attempt to demonstrate a new, long-term commitment to the country. But it has provoked outrage in Pakistan, where critics said the package – which sets certain benchmarks for the Pakistani government – compromises Pakistani sovereignty.
“I don’t know if it’s growing, but it certainly is quite profound,” the official said of anti-American feelings across the Pakistani government. “They don’t want more Americans here, they are not sure what the Americans are doing, et cetera, et cetera.”
Pakistan and the US have had a rocky relationship for years, with many Pakistanis feeling the US pays attention to their country only when it serves US interests. Since 9/11, many Pakistanis have been even more scornful of the US because they feel used. There is a broad perception here that the US is demanding that Pakistan fight insurgents solely for US gain.
An October poll conducted by the Gilani polling group asked Pakistanis about their Army's offensive against insurgents in South Waziristan. About 37 percent of respondents said the fight is Pakistan’s war, while 39 percent said it is America’s war. Only 22 percent said that both Pakistan and America have shared interests in the war.
The American diplomatic official, who requested anonymity to talk about a sensitive political issue, said the visa issue is vexing because it actually undermines programs the Pakistanis have asked the US to pay for, like law enforcement training or military assistance along the western border. It means that some embassy departments are only about 60 percent manned.
Programs beginning to shut down
Reprisals will not come with a diplomatic quid pro quo, typically where the American embassy would stop issuing visas to Pakistanis. Instead, some of the assistance programs will have to be terminated.
“What’s going to happen is the programs are just going to begin to shut down, and that’s what’s happening now,” said the official.
The visa denials are being applied haphazardly across the government, the US official said. Once a ministry official hears how the visa issue is affecting a program important to them, the visas are sometimes issued.
In one example, American mechanics who are required to maintain helicopters and airplanes for members of the Frontier Corps fighting militants on Pakistan’s western border were denied visas. When Pakistani officials learned that the planes supporting the Corps were not flying and were told it was over this visa
issue, a limited number of visas were granted, the official said.
The US embassy here is expanding at a rapid pace during the next 18 months, from about 500 American personnel now to about 800 individuals, according to embassy officials.
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