US's $1bn Islamabad home is its castle
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - The ambitious US$1 billion plan of the United States to expand its
presence in Pakistan's capital city of Islamabad underscores Washington's
resolve to consolidate its presence in the region, particularly in pursuit of
the endgame in the "war on terror".
This marks the beginning of direct American handling of "war and peace"
diplomacy in the region, following the forging of a seamless relationship
between the Pakistani military establishment and the US military. (See
Pakistan-US plan falls into place Asia Times Online, July 24, 2009.)
Standing in the way are Pakistan's restive tribal areas and the seemingly
never-ending - and escalating - Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan's Pashtun
According to reports, the US will spend $405 million on the
reconstruction and refurbishment of its main embassy building in the diplomatic
enclave of the capital; $111 million for a new complex to accommodate 330
personnel; and $197 million to construct about 250 housing units.
For this purpose, the US Embassy has acquired about 7.2 hectares of land at
what is widely considered a mark-down price of 1 billion rupees (US$12
million), courtesy of the state-run Capital Development Authority. A Turkish
firm has already built a 153-room compound for the embassy.
The fortress-like embassy will eventually accommodate close to 1,000 additional
personnel being sent to Islamabad as part of the US administration's decision
to significantly raise its profile in the country. The new staffers will
augment the current 750-strong American contingent already based in Pakistan;
this against a sanctioned strength of 350.
"What appears to be more alarming is that this staff surge will include 350
[US] marines. Additionally, the Americans are pressuring Islamabad to allow the
import of hundreds of Dyncorp armored personnel carriers," reported Pakistanís
largest English-language daily Dawn.
A spokesman for the US Embassy in Islamabad, Richard W Snelsire, told Asia
Times Online that the US was "redoing" the embassy compound as it was 40 years
old. He said this was also largely because US aid to Pakistan had tripled to
US$1.5 billion a year and therefore additional staff were needed. Snelsire
dismissed the report of armored vehicles being used at the embassy and also
said the notion of 350 marines being stationed there was "fictitious".
The point can't be denied, though, that the embassy is undergoing massive
expansion, and one cannot easily assume all of the new staff will be
Indeed, since the last few months of 2008, the Americans have quietly been
working on extending their physical footprint in the country.
During this period, about 300 American officials landed at Tarbella, the
brigade headquarters of Pakistan's Special Operation Task Force approximately
20 kilometers from Islamabad. They were officially designated as a "training
advisory group", according to documents seen by Asia Times Online. (See
The gloves are off in Pakistan Asia Times Online, September 23, 2008.)
Investigations by Asia Times Online indicate that this was no simple training
program. According to sources directly handling the project, the US bought a
huge plot of land at Tarbella, several square kilometers. Twenty large
containers were then sent there. They were handled by the Americans, who did
not allow any Pakistani officials to inspect them. Given the size of the
containers, sources familiar with such shipments believe they carried special
arms and ammunition and even possibly tanks and armored vehicles - and
certainly nothing to do with any training program.
These developments at Tarbella and now the bigger facility in the heart of
Islamabad are reminiscent of American policy in the Middle East, where the
Jordanian capital of Amman was turned into a hub for the US's handling of Iraq,
Syria and Palestine.
Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the biggest embassy in the world was
built in Baghdad. The facility not only provided logistical support to US
troops in Iraq, it helped tackle Palestinian jihadi outfits in Jordan and
worked to reduce their influence in Syria and Lebanon. It also helped reduce
the influence of Iraqi resistance groups based in Jordan and tried to form
closer relationships between Israel and Arab countries.
In Pakistan, after Islamabad sided with the US following the September 11,
2001, attacks, the US Central Intelligence Agency established low-key
facilities in cities such as Islamabad, Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar. In recent
years, increasing numbers of unmanned Predator drones have used Pakistan as a
base for attacks against militants inside the country and in Afghanistan.
Contacts close to the top decision-makers in Pakistan tell Asia Times Online
that the improved US Embassy will significantly and publicly step up
Washington's involvement in the country and beyond.
The immediate targets are the Taliban and al-Qaeda. There is talk that once
again the idea of peace dialogue will be explored with them in the border areas
of Pakistan near the Afghan border.
Apart from the troubles in Afghanistan, where this month foreign forces are
being killed in record numbers, Pakistan's tribal areas have to be "tamed" if
the US is to further its regional aims.
In the meantime, infrastructure work necessary to realize these aims is already
underway - Pakistan, Afghanistan and some Central Asian republics - notably
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - are building communication links such as roads and
railways to enhance regional trade.
It is envisaged that regional economic powerhouse India, at a later stage, will
be a part of this trade loop through Pakistan. After some frosty years between
Islamabad and Delhi, the US is actively working to get them to resolve their
differences, the chief of which is over divided Kashmir.
But first, the war that won't go away in Afghanistan and which has now taken
root in Pakistan.
The US and its allies might be thinking of striking deals with some of the
Taliban, but leader Mullah Omar is having none of it. He has ordered that all
backchannel talks with the Americans through Saudi Arabia and other contacts be
severed and that the war against foreign troops be accelerated. (See
Taliban will let guns do their talking Asia Times Online, July 14,
There has also been a strategic switch in the militant camps of the North
Waziristan tribal area where previously Tajik fighters were trained to fight in
Afghanistan. They are now returning home, via Turkey, and the Taliban are
desperately trying to capture the western Afghan province of Herat to open
direct access to the Central Asian states through Turkmenistan.
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has abandoned the jihadi assets it
built to take on India by closing training camps in Pakistan-administered
Kashmir. Many of these fighters are now in the hands of al-Qaeda and there is
all likelihood, confirmed by analysts privy to the Pakistani establishment as
well as by militants, that if India enters in the grand American game, al-Qaeda
will activate these cells for operations in India.
"At the moment, India does not have any direct role in Afghanistan, but if it
tries to play one by sending its troops or any other support to the American
war, it will be the beginning of Ghazwa-e-Hind [the war on India promised by
the Prophet Mohammad as part of the end of the time battles]," retired
Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, former head of the ISI, said in a recent
As much as the US wants to expand its war efforts, inter-connected jihadi and
militants groups are already thinking beyond their traditional boundaries to
meet the challenge.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]