Why Diplomats' Travel Restrictions in Pakistan Are 'Not a Good Sign'


In today's saturated news cycle, it would've been easy to miss an international diplomatic crisis in the making last month after a U.S. official was involved in a traffic accident in Islamabad, Pakistan. Pakistan briefly kept the official, a defense attache, from leaving the country, but eventually U.S. claims of diplomatic immunity won the day. The State Department recently confirmed he's back in America.

Read More: How a US Attache's Diplomatic Immunity Came to the Rescue in Pakistan (RealClearLife)

But I recently spoke to two experts who said an underappreciated consequence of the whole ordeal was the decision by the Pakistani government to restrict the movement of U.S. officials in Pakistan and the reported reciprocal move by the U.S. to restrict the movement of Pakistani officials in Washington, D.C. While the State Department declined to discuss the travel restrictions, Pakistan's foreign ministry said that in both countries, officials who wish to travel more than about 25 miles from the respective capitals will have to get permission of the host government first.

Shuja Nawaz, an expert on Pakistan and a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, told me such measures are usually reserved in the U.S. for "unfriendly" nations, like Iran. "This is not a friendly act," he said.

In 2000, Cuban, Iraqi and Russian officials complained in a United Nations meeting about travel restrictions for their colleagues in the U.S., leading to this fantastic exchange:

Mr. Al-KADHE (Iraq) said that justifications to explain the restrictions ran contrary to the norms of international law. He agreed with the representative of the Russian Federation that they were exaggerated justifications. For example, Iraq had received an invitation from a church in New Jersey to attend a religious service. The United States Mission orally rejected the Ambassador’s request to accept the invitation. Did accepting that invitation represent a threat to United States security?

Mr. MOLLER (United States) said that regarding the Permanent Representative of Iraq, if the United Nations were not in the United States he would not be in the country. He was here only because he was accredited to the United Nations.

Mr. Al-KADHE (Iraq) said, on behalf of the Permanent Representative of Iraq, that if the United Nations were not in the United States, he would not even have wanted to come here as a tourist.

Nawaz said the restrictions can severely hamper diplomatic operations, but Robert Grenier, former CIA Station Chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, told me they certainly make the task of intelligence gathering harder as well. That's especially worrying for U.S. spies working in a country that is a key player in America's counter-terrorism struggle.

“I think it is a big deal,” he said. “When you see it in the context of U.S.-Pakistani relations, I’m not aware of the last time that something like this was done for reasons other than security reasons. This is not a good sign. Not a good sign.”

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