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Visitors distract embassy diplomats in Pakistan, IG says

Jul. 15, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By AAMER MADHANI   |   Comments
Sens. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island pose at an airport in Pakistan earlier this spring. A new inspector general report finds that a flurry of VIP trips to Pakistan are hampering work at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan.
Sens. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island pose at an airport in Pakistan earlier this spring. A new inspector general report finds that a flurry of VIP trips to Pakistan are hampering work at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. ()

A constant crush of visiting VIPs from Washington ties up officials at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and distracts the diplomats from crucial work, according to an inspector's report.

In 2009, the embassy hosted almost 700 such travelers, including members of Congress, high-ranking administration officials and staffers who traveled to Pakistan to meet with top U.S. diplomats and Pakistani leaders.

Embassy officials conducted at least 100 preparatory meetings before the visits and tied up 300 embassy-owned vehicles during a total of 175 days in Pakistan, according to a report released last week from the Office of the State Department Inspector General.

"Large numbers of high-level visits are a fact of life when U.S. national interests are as deeply engaged as they are in Pakistan," the report said. "However, many of the same reporting and public diplomacy officers who are expected to meet Washington's voracious reporting and outreach requirements find that substantial parts of their time must be devoted to visits while contact work and reporting languish."

Interest in Pakistan among members of Congress and top administration officials is high. The nation is on the front lines of the war on terrorism as Taliban fighters find sanctuary along the porous Afghan-Pakistani border. The Obama administration has pumped millions of dollars into Pakistan in an effort to stabilize the nation.

In the first few months of 2010, the embassy informed the White House it would be more selective in approving visits by administration officials. The embassy hasn't turned away members of Congress, who control spending.

The State Department said it is reviewing the report and considering whether to make further changes in its policy.

"We have not said ‘no' to official visitors," Richard Snelsire, a spokesman for the embassy, said in an e-mail, explaining that the embassy has asked some groups to reduce their number of visitors.

The inspector general said in a separate report, published in March, that frequent visits by members of Congress and federal and state government officials to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul diverted diplomats' attention from counterinsurgency tasks. Some diplomats described the constant visits as "war tourism," according to the inspector general's report.

Ronald Neumann, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, said high-level visits are a "mixed blessing." He said some members of Congress come to the conflict zones, in part, to bolster their reputations with voters, but the visits offer the "single-best opportunity" for diplomats in the field to build support from Congress for an administration's policies.

"You have an opportunity to explain things in a way that isn't sound bites, and it's not the posturing that you often have to go through in public testimony," Neumann said. "It is also the best way of explaining things to people who count in the executive branch."

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Aamer Madhani reports for USA Today.

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