Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ghurr Meetah Ghurr

It took me twenty-three hours to fly from Washington DC to Islamabad, Pakistan. The laws governing State Dept. travel allow us to fly in Business Class provided that our elapsed travel time exceeds fourteen hours. Whenever possible, we are required to fly an American flagged carrier. So, I took United Airlines to London, transferred there to a British Airways non-stop flight into Islamabad and got to fly Business Class on both carriers. I left DC on Nov. 13th at 10:00pm and arrived in Pakistan on Nov. 15th at about 7:00am local time. While I didn't really sleep on either flight, having all that extra room allowed me to stretch out and get a bit of rest and I got to use the BA lounge for my eight hour layover at Heathrow.

One of the benefits of traveling on a diplomatic passport is that you get to use the 'special' lines at the host country immigration point. However, flying into Islamabad these days you will find that virtually everyone on the plane is either a Pakistani national or a diplomat elbowing his way into the 'special' line. Fortunately for me, I was met by our Embassy 'expediter' and was taken to the head of the line, rushed through immigration, waved through customs and tossed into an armored Land Cruiser for a dash into town. I was shown my new home ("ghurr" in Urdu, "meetah" is sweet) and given a couple of hours to unpack, shower and change into fresh clothes. Then the motorpool sent a car for me and I headed off to meet my new colleagues at the Embassy.

My responsibilities will include overseeing the motorpool and the shipping/receiving sections, as well as backing up the other two GSOs on their portfolios (housing, travel, procurement, etc.). After I'd filled in a dozen or so forms advising all and sundry that I was now a permanent member of the American mission, had my first cup of decent coffee and adjusted the chair in my office to the 'that's just perfect' height and tilt, I was given a look at the upcoming schedule. I saw that we had a motorcade to the airport set up for the following day (Friday) to meet an important visitor and asked if I could tag along. Lita, my co-GSO and de facto mentor, gave me a funny look and said, "Sure, it's your job to run the motorcades so you might as well get started." Okay, I didn't want to come right out and ask what my job was, but now I knew.

Friday morning I ran around getting processed and badged and then we headed back out to Islamabad Airport to pick up Mr. Negroponte, the Deputy Secretary of State. Mr. Negroponte arrived on a small military jet and used the Chaklala Air Base, which gives a whole new meaning to the word 'special'. Chaklala and Islamabad Airport share a runway and nothing else. The arrivals area at Chaklala is beautiful, open and very tastefully decorated and was reserved on this occasion for Mr. Negroponte's exclusive use. Islamabad Airport is packed, old, down at the heels and teemed with at least one hundred thousand people when I arrived. Our VIP was met at planeside by the Ambassador and her entourage, his passport was given to an expediter for processing and he was sitting in the Ambassador's car within ten minutes of the plane touching the tarmac. As soon as his door was closed, we were off. His bags would be in a van right behind the main motorcade, no standing at the carousel saying, "Oh, oh I think the black one with the piece of duct tape down the side is mine!" for him.

This was a high speed motorcade. That meant full police escort with lights and sirens, all intersections closed, all traffic pulled to the side of the road and all vehicles in convoy with about ten inches between bumpers. We were traveling over eighty miles an hour with bursts up over one hundred, I felt like I was in NASCAR (except that we made right hand turns too). A high speed motorcade completely redefines the phrase "road hog". Without going into detail regarding the security arrangements, I will say that any external vehicle attempting to join our motorcade uninvited would have been severely chastised. It took less time for us to collect Mr. Negroponte, clear him into Pakistan and drive him to the Embassy than it took for me to get my bags the day before and I had been rushed through by our expediter.

I was given Saturday off so I could start putting my stuff away and get settled into my new home. I'll take some pictures of my house as soon as my camera gets here. I have four guards who are permanently stationed here, in fact, they live in the servants' quarters. Most houses have three guards, but I have four. They are Saqib, Ali, Sher Mohammad and Shabbir. It's like having my own personal army. I also have cable tv and internet. Next week I'll be interviewing housekeepers, cooks and gardeners. This is very similar to the Peace Corps except for the guards, the beautiful house and garden, the servants and the motorpool driver assigned to me. Yep, just like Peace Corps.

On Sunday we took Mr. Negroponte back to the airport and I rode out ahead with the baggage instead of in the high speed motorcade. After his plane was airborne, I spent several hours exploring Islamabad. There are small shopping centers in each neighborhood and they are each known for one thing or another. For example, the market in my neighborhood has the best meat in town. I bought a two pound fillet mignon ready to slice into medallions for just under five dollars. The market in Sector 7 has the biggest bookstore in the city and I picked up a couple of novels that looked interesting. My local grocery store carries Skippy peanut butter and Hellman's mayo, so I'm set. 

I live across the street from one of the many mosques in Islamabad and get reminded to pray five times a day by the Imam with his very very loud speaker. The first time I'm reminded each day is just before 5:00am. The next three reminders come while I'm at the Embassy but I catch the final call to prayers at the end of the day.

Now I think I'll take one of my new novels, a cigar and my glass of juice and head out to the patio to enjoy the remains of the day. The birds are all in full song and the sun is shining off the Margalla Hills. So far so good, but tomorrow I have to start work because my 'new guy' dispensation only lasted one day.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Musharraf: Shakespearean Scholar?

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers!"
Henry VI, Act IV, Scene II

Pakistan, as you may or may not have noticed, has recently become quite 'interesting'. I  mean 'interesting', of course, in that it seems to be the source of really bad news on a daily basis. Today, for example, the police have taken to the streets with batons and tear gas to prevent unruly mobs of briefcase toting umbrella wielding lawyers from threatening the military government with their demonstrations.  As your mother must have said, "Be careful with those umbrellas. It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye!" This has given CNN's talking heads a reason to stare seriously into their cameras and ask serious questions about serious matters concerning democracy, the rule of law and whether or not Pervez Musharraf will take off his uniform. As a possible indication of his intentions (what we in the diplomatic community call a 'clue'), the government of Pakistan has just disbanded the Supreme Court, rounded up several thousand lawyers who foolishly considered it to be in good taste to object to that move and declared a state of emergency. Pakistani media are now subject to the control and censorship of the government and the troops are in the streets. This is being done in order to 'save' Pakistan and ensure that the road to democracy remains open, if untraveled. Patriotism, as Dr. Johnson observed, is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Now a disclaimer, all of my information comes from the same sources you rely on for yours, CNN, the New York Times, People magazine, my barber and the guy who pours the beer during Happy Hour. I suppose that the State Department has access to other sources of information, but they don't share those with me. In a week I'll leave for Islamabad and I'll be better able to form my own opinions. More importantly, I'll be able to answer the most pressing question of the day ... what effect is all this having on tee times at the Islamabad Golf Club?

By happy coincidence I have just completed the Foreign Affairs Counter Threat training program known to one and all as 'Crash & Bang'. As a result I can now, confidently, injure myself with four different military grade weapons, three types of armored vehicles and a plethora of explosives, improvised and otherwise. I can easily spot anyone tailing me provided that they hold up a large sign stating that they are following me and occasionally draw my attention to it by blowing a bugle and waving their arms rapidly overhead. And if the do-do hits the spinning blades I can render limited first aid as soon as I recover from my faint. So, in answer to your unasked question ... Hell yes, I'm ready to go. I'm locked and cocked and ready to rock! (I think that's a line from "Rambo", but I'm not sure and I don't really know what it means but it sounds like it means that I'm all set to go.)

As part of Crash & Bang we got to drive police Interceptors and learned to perform several difficult maneuvers including high speed backing up, evasive swerving and full out emergency stops. I've discovered that, while I'm not terribly accurate at the high speed reverse thing (they assure me that they'll be able to pound out the body damage on the car) and I don't stop too well (fortunately orange traffic cones are relatively inexpensive), I can swerve with the best of them. Swerving, like procrastination, seems to be a skill I was born with, some have it some don't. However, when it comes to shooting, if a terrorist runs up to me, throws himself onto the barrel of the gun and holds it against his chest for me I have a fifty-fifty chance of hitting him. The other and equally possible outcome is, unfortunately, shooting my own foot. The purpose of the course was to familiarize us with various weapons, not qualify us in their use. Mission accomplished! Given a choice between a weapon and an eggplant I can identify the weapon every time.

Although I tend to make light of my own experiences, the course itself is designed to enhance our personal security overseas. It is well thought out and taught by professionals who have spent many years in the field honing their own skills. I am much more aware of the simple things I can do to keep myself out of trouble now than I was a week ago. Most of my colleagues in the course are headed for Iraq and most of those are going out to PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) scattered around the country. These folks are tasked with helping Iraqi communities establish functioning local governments. PRTs make the IZ (International Zone, formerly the Green Zone), which receives mortar fire every single day, seem like a country club. Well, it does have a pool! Four of us are going to Pakistan and one happy camper is headed to Beirut. All these people have volunteered for their posts and they all believe that they can accomplish some good in places that seem devoid of goodness.

So, what to do about Pakistan and its problems addressing concerns with internal security, rising Islamic Fundamentalism, an increasingly active and vocal middle class, external pressure from allies, widespread poverty, illiteracy and a military government? Beats me. I hope that isn't too technical and I try to avoid diplospeak as much as possible. I don't think that there are any easy solutions to Pakistan's problems but if one occurs to me while I'm playing with the motorpool, I'll pass it up the chain of command and humbly accept the praise of a grateful Dept. of State.

Now I have to pack and finish up all my admin tasks. I'll be in Islamabad next week and I'll keep in touch.

"If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces."
The Merchant of Venice. ACT I Scene 2.