Monday, July 19, 2010

Islamabad July 18-19

One thing I can tell you about Islamabad in the summer -- pretty much the only thing I can tell you about Islamabad in the summer -- is that it is ferociously hot.

It must have been 120 degrees when we landed on Sunday after the overnight flight from Washington. Its a long haul and it feels like it, because you arrive in the morning and then have a whole day of work ahead of you.

In the heat.

Details of Clinton's trip were kept secret ahead of her arrival because of security fears. Pakistan is what they call a "Critical Threat Environment". It feels threatening. The airport access highway is lined with soldiers carrying guns, all facing out as though scanning the underbrush for attackers. The motorcade is shadowed by a Pakistani military helicopter, and the last vehicle is army truck bristling with more military gunmen. The city is hobbled by checking points, all of which feel on edge.

In the blistering heat and bogged by jet lag, it all feels pretty surreal. Especially when you finally arrive at the typically ugly U.S. embassy and find a sort of half-hearted attempt at a golf club. Its actually not bad, but I couldn't imagine working/living there. They set us up in a "media center" which is actually a rec room next the pool. The pool itself is warm as blood and only the hardiest go in for recreational swimming.

They've also got a 'club house' with an ok restaurant and even a bar upstairs, staffed by Pakistanis. The walls are plastered with warning signs about drinking too much, which must be an occupational hazard for some of the people there.

We had a couple of briefings and then were shown to the Pods...(see picture above). Because the embassy has so many visitors (thanks to the War on Terror/Extremism), it has been overwhelmed by congressional delegations, fact finding missions, and of course visitors like Hillary. They all have to stay at the embassy because the hotels outside the perimeter are seen as too risky. So the solution is the Pod...a reconfigured cargo container that has been refitted as a bare bones hotel double. Its not bad, given the situation. They are airconditioned -- freezing in fact -- and have plumbing with shower, toilet etc. There aren't any windows but I guess that doesn't really matter in Islamabad.

We had a few more briefings and then waited around for Clinton's meeting with the Prime Minister, which yielded a little bit o f news in the announcement that Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a long-awaited border trade deal. The U.S. had been pushing for this in hopes that it would both give Afghanistan more export routes and tie the two countries together as they face off against the Taliban. A small step forward, but the U.S. is ready to trumpet even the smallest at this point.

In the evening the Pakistani ambassador and Richard Holbrooke came by and had a pretty funny joint briefing off the record. Clearly they like each other but perhaps don't fully trust each other, which is a pretty good mirror of the governments they represent.

Today was killer. Up early, into the motorcade, and then a lot of waiting and more transfers. Clinton did a two hour "strategic dialogue" with the Pakistanis, then held a press conference, then went for a "town hall meeting" with about 200 people, then did an hour media round table with journalists...exhausting just to watch, let alone to actually do. Then it was back into the motorcade and we headed to the airport while she diverted to the military GHQ for a one-on-one with General Kayani, who most suspect calls the real shots in Pakistan.

We spent a couple of hours at the airport "VIP" waiting room, unairconditioned. Her meeting went well, or at least there was lots of jet lag nodding off and walking around in the heat. I'm including a picture because it is typical of a lot of the time one spends on this beat. Just waiting in a waiting room.

Once she arrived, we were off to Kabul. I'll write about that tomorrow.