FIRST it was India, now it is the US. Pakistani diplomats in missions abroad may once again be caught in a broader bilateral dispute. According to reports in sections of the media, the US is preparing to impose onerous travel restrictions on Pakistani diplomats stationed in the embassy and consulates in that country. Allegedly, if Pakistani diplomats in the US wish to travel outside a 40-kilometre radius from the embassy or consulate they are posted to, they will have to send a request to US authorities at least five days in advance. The travel restriction may come into force on May 1. It is not clear if the measures contemplated by the US are retaliatory or punitive. Security considerations in Pakistan can often require the obtaining of a no-objection certificate by foreign diplomats prior diplomats travelling to certain parts of the country. In the case of the US, there has long been a tussle over visas — the US alleging that either the vetting of visas for its diplomats takes too long or the visas are issued for shorter durations than requested. The tussle reached a peak under the last PPP-led government when it was alleged that the then-ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani issued visas will-nilly to Americans without obtaining a security clearance from Pakistan.
What is clear is that diplomats should not be dragged into bilateral disputes. The Trump administration’s demands of Pakistan have injected fresh tension in the Pakistan-US relationship, and the unprecedented potential targeting of Pakistani diplomats in the US suggests that Washington is willing to explore novel ways to punish this country. That is not just unwise, it is counterproductive. The Foreign Office may not be the focal point of the relationship between the US and Pakistan, but it can help inject some stability into a relationship that teeters between American anger and Pakistani annoyance. As for Pakistan, the authorities here ought to consider the impact of various measures that have limited the ability of INGOs and diplomats to move freely around the country. Certainly, there are security concerns that must be taken into consideration. An attack on or kidnapping of foreigners could have serious repercussions for the country. Yet, it appears that a number of the restrictions on foreigners in Pakistan are rooted in excessive fears and paranoia about the real reason why they may be in the country. A more measured approach is needed.
Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2018