Thursday, May 15, 2008

It's All About Cars

"A démarche is a formal diplomatic representation of one government’s official position, views, or wishes on a given subject to an appropriate official in another government or international organization. Démarches generally seek to persuade, inform, or gather information from a foreign government. Governments may also use a démarche to protest or object to actions by a foreign government." State Department Diplopedia

Démarche can also be used as a verb, as in "I have to démarche the GOP (Government of Pakistan) today regarding our dissatisfaction with...". It is almost never used familiarly, as in "after de soldiers line up, demarche".

Back in November I put on my best suit and delivered our notification to "persuade" the GOP to release a small number of vehicles they were holding in Customs impound and to "inform" the GOP that these vehicles were needed, urgently, by the U.S. Mission in Pakistan for the security of our people. The vehicles which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was dragging its heels on releasing were all 'hard' cars or fully armored vehicles. I delivered my notice by hand to the Deputy Chief of Protocol, had a very nice cup of tea with her, chatted with her about her years as an undergraduate student at MIT and received her assurance that she completely understood our request and would act on it promptly. Then she left to go on Hajj for three weeks, during which time no one was empowered to act on her behalf.

I became aware of her return when I received a notice from the GOP which stated that our vehicles could not be released because it was against GOP rules to "sell these vehicles on the open market". I assured her that we would never dispose of our armored vehicles on the open market and was informed, via an official diplomatic note, that "the French had recently tried to sell an armored vehicle on the local economy". Excusé Moi! I immediately wrote, in reply, that under U.S. law we can only dispose of our 'hard' cars by a) sending them back to the U.S., b) dropping them into the ocean, or c) blowing them up. Pakistan, a nation notorious for selling nuclear weapons to the highest bidder, is concerned that a few armored Toyotas will end up in the hands of ruffians.

I was next asked to provide "proof" that we had disposed of our older vehicles appropriately. You can imagine my shock and disappointment when I learned that my word as a gentleman was not sufficient. We are given permission by the State Department to destroy these vehicles and we blow them up. We happen to videotape this process and I was able to give the Deputy Chief of Protocol a copy of the cd.

Time passed. More vehicles arrived at the port in Karachi and joined the original batch in impound.

I had several more meetings with the Deputy Chief of Protocol and her assistant and was assured each time that they were completely sympathetic and were working diligently to get our vehicles released. More vehicles arrived. I received a very strange note requiring us to declare the type of weaponry installed in these vehicles. We issued a diplomatic note in reply assuring the GOP that these were "unarmed armored" vehicles and received a demand to describe the level of protection offered by the armoring down to the NATO calibre of bullet the armor would stop. And when they had run out of absurd questions to ask, they did what any self-respecting bureaucracy would do...they passed the paperwork to another ministry. All they needed, they explained, was a No Objection letter from the Ministry of the Interior and they would immediately issue the needed approvals.

It took me almost a month to track down the desk in the Ministry of the Interior where the paperwork for our now thirty-three vehicles was being ignored, another couple of weeks to get an appointment with the Joint Secretary for Security and a one hour meeting to convince him to release the vehicles. Smiles, handshakes all around and a small Happy Dance in the parking lot. A week later, after phoning the Joint Secretary every day, I was told that he had passed the paperwork up the chain of command to the Additional Secretary and had recommended that "everything be approved".

From there it went to the Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, who declined to meet with me but assured me, through an intermediary, that he had forwarded our request to his superior, Rehman Malik, the Advisor to the Minister of the Interior, and as soon as Malik returned from London he would "quite probably" approve our request and let us have our vehicles. After all, hadn't we recently given the Ministry of the Interior 600 brand new Toyota double cab pick-ups (which, incidentally, never spent a single day in impound)?

Mr. Malik is described in Wikipedia as "the person responsible for the security of Benazir Bhutto" so I hoped he'd be somewhat sympathetic to our request to allow us to protect ourselves since the whole Bhutto thing didn't work real well. His level of concern and sympathy was expressed by stating that, "if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will issue me a No Objection letter to your request then I will issue them a No Objection letter to your request". Huh?

And so it goes.

A team is coming out from DC in June to give the motor pool drivers a two day course in security awareness driving. We use older unarmored vehicles for this course and treat them harshly. In my motor pool inventory I have six or so cars that have long since outlived their usefulness and are perfect for this course. The only concern over using these cars is that they haven't been driven for quite some time. So, one by one I've been driving them home at night and the next day I bring them to the auto shop and let the mechanics work on them. The other day I was driving home in an old Honda and I was within sight of my house when I got pulled over for speeding. The officer asked to see my license and I gave it to him. He asked me if I knew how fast I was going and I told him that I wasn't paying attention, but I guessed I was going too fast since he had stopped me. Then he asked me where I lived and I pointed to my house. "Awwww," he said, "you almost made it home!" He was so moved by my bad luck that he just gave me a warning and drove away.

Among the old beaters that I'm trying to get into shape for the Security Course are several Hondas, a Mitsubishi and my personal favorite, a KIA Spectra. The KIA is metallic pink and looks like the car awarded to Mary Kay's least successful salesperson.

An acquaintance from the Peace Corps showed up in Islamabad yesterday. He left Bulgaria last Fall, traveled overland through your various 'Stans and arrived in Pakistan through the mountain passes from China. He has traveled through parts of the country that we are not allowed to go into with armored vehicles in convoys. As one of my friends put it, "he's hitchhiked through Hunza and I can't go to the KFC". However, to be fair, by tradition the KFC in Islamabad is the first thing burned to the ground during riots. Traditions are important in every culture.

Inspired by this example of adventurism and being the rebel that I am, I ordered up an armored vehicle and drove across the street from my house to Said Pur Village. There are three things that are interesting about Said Pur Village. First, it is currently being renovated as a 'model' village for tourists to visit; second, it has the mosque that calls me to prayer at times when I am least inclined to pray; third, it has a fully functional goat market.

As you can see, Said Pur Village will be a charming little place to visit once it's finished. Depending on your own personal perspective, the Goat Market may or may not add to that charm.

The government buildings along Constitution Avenue are truly impressive and, when the army isn't out in force, it's possible to grab a shot or two of them.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan

The Prime Minister's Palace

My expedition to the Said Pur tourist village has left me feeling so adventurous that I am thinking of swinging by KFC for dinner. I'll be sure to wear my "Free the I'bad 33" tee shirt.