Tuesday, August 9, 2011

State Dept Issues New Travel Warning for Pakistan, the Wild, Wild West of South Central Asia -- But Where's The Sheriff?

On August 8, the State Department issued a new travel warning for Pakistan not only pointing to the potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout the country due to armed attacks including suicide bombings, but the widespread danger which includes false identification of individuals as intel operatives or private security contractors, spike in the prosecution for visa overstays,  severe restrictions in the travel of U.S. personnel, targeted killings and religious intolerance.  The kidnapping for ransom not just of foreign nationals but also of Pakistani nationals apparently has also increased dramatically nationwide.

Given the unpopularity of the United States in that country, I would not be surprise if consular access to incarcerated American citizens is also a very "challenging" endeavor for our consular officers in Pakistan.  Pakistan in my opinion offers the most dangerous assignments for our diplomats.  All posts in Pakistan except Quetta (25%) and Lahore (30%) get the same danger pay as the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan at 35%.  But if you look at the attacks on diplomats and USG facilities, Pakistan is way ahead than either Baghdad or Kabul.

Excerpt from the new travel warning:

The presence of al-Qaida, Taliban elements, and indigenous militant sectarian groups poses a potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan. Terrorists and their sympathizers regularly attack civilian, government, and foreign targets, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. The Government of Pakistan has heightened security measures, particularly in the major cities. Threat reporting indicates terrorist groups continue to seek opportunities to attack locations where U.S. citizens and Westerners are known to congregate or visit, such as shopping areas, hotels, clubs and restaurants, places of worship, schools, or outdoor recreation events. Terrorists have disguised themselves as Pakistani security personnel to gain access to targeted areas. Some media reports have recently falsely identified U.S. diplomats – and to a lesser extent U.S. and other Western journalists and workers for non-governmental organizations (NGOs)– as being intelligence operatives or private security personnel.

Since January 2010, terrorists have executed coordinated attacks with multiple operatives using portable weaponry such as guns, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and suicide vests or car bombs in Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi, and Rawalpindi. Recent attacks included armed assaults on heavily guarded sites such as the naval air base in Karachi, the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar, police offices in Lahore and Karachi, military installations in Lahore, religious shrines including the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore and the Baba Farid Ganj Shakar shrine in southern Punjab, religious processions in Lahore, a hospital in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and a food distribution center in Bajaur Agency.

U.S. citizens have been victims of attacks in the last few years.

On May 20, 2011, a U.S. consulate general vehicle in Peshawar was attacked, killing one person and injuring a dozen, including two U.S. employees of the mission.

On April 5, 2010, terrorists carried out a complex attack on the U.S. Consulate General in Peshawar, with several Pakistani security and military personnel killed or wounded.

On February 3, 2010, ten persons, including three U.S. military personnel, were killed and 70 injured in a suicide bombing at a new girls’ school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The October 2009 attack on the World Food Program headquarters resulted in serious injury of a U.S. citizen.

On November 12, 2008, a U.S. citizen contractor and his driver in Peshawar were shot and killed in their car.

In September 2008, over 50 people, including three U.S. citizens, were killed and hundreds injured when a suicide bomber set off a truck filled with explosives outside a major international hotel in Islamabad.

In August 2008, gunmen stopped and shot at the vehicle of a U.S. diplomat in Peshawar.

In March 2008, a restaurant frequented by Westerners in Islamabad was bombed, killing a patron and seriously injuring several others, including four U.S. diplomats.

On March 2, 2006, a U.S. diplomat, a Consulate General employee, and three others were killed and 52 people wounded when a suicide bomber detonated a car packed with explosives alongside the U.S. Consulate General in Karachi.

Visits by U.S. government personnel to Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore are limited, and movements by U.S. government personnel assigned to the Consulates General in those cities are severely restricted. U.S. officials in Islamabad are instructed to restrict the frequency and to minimize the duration of trips to public markets, restaurants, and other locations. Only a limited number of official visitors are placed in hotels, and for limited stays.

Depending on ongoing security assessments, the U.S. Embassy places areas such as hotels, markets, and/or restaurants off limits to official personnel. U.S. citizens in Pakistan are strongly urged to avoid hotels that do not apply stringent security measures and to maintain good situational awareness, particularly when visiting locations frequented by Westerners.

Access to many areas of Pakistan, including the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border and the area adjacent to the Line of Control (LOC) in the disputed territory of Kashmir, is restricted by local government authorities for non-Pakistanis. Travel to any restricted region requires official permission from the Government of Pakistan. Failure to obtain such permission in advance can result in arrest and detention by Pakistani authorities. Due to security concerns the U.S. government currently allows only essential travel within the FATA by U.S. officials. Travel to much of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and Balochistan is also restricted.

The Governor of the Punjab province and the federal Minister for Minority Affairs were assassinated in Islamabad in January and March 2011, respectively. There have been targeted attacks on a provincial minister in Balochistan, university faculty in Swat, and an Iranian diplomat in Peshawar. Suicide bomb attacks have occurred at Islamabad University, schools, rallies, places of worship, and major marketplaces in Lahore and Peshawar.

Reports of religious intolerance rose in 2010-2011. Members of minority communities, including a U.S. citizen, were victims of targeted killings. Accusations of blasphemy—a crime that carries the death penalty in Pakistan—against Muslims as well as non-Muslims also increased. Foreign nationals including U.S. citizens on valid missionary visas have encountered increased scrutiny from local authorities since early 2011. Local authorities are generally less responsive and do not operate with the level of professionalism that U.S. citizens may be accustomed to in the United States.

U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan have been arrested, deported, harassed, and detained for overstaying their Pakistani visas or for traveling to Pakistan with the inappropriate visa classification. U.S. citizens who attempt to renew or extend their visas while in Pakistan have been left without legal status for an extended period of time and subjected to harassment or interrogation by local authorities. In 2011, the number of U.S. citizens arrested, detained, and prosecuted for visa overstay increased markedly across the country.

U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan have also been kidnapped for ransom or for personal reasons. Reported kidnappings include the June 2011 kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in Lahore; the 2010 kidnapping of a U.S. citizen child in Karachi, and the 2009 kidnapping of a U.S. citizen official of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Balochistan. The kidnapping of Pakistani citizens and other foreign nationals, usually for ransom, continues to increase dramatically nationwide.

Read the whole thing here.

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