The capital of Pakistan was moved to Islamabad in 1967. As a planned city, Islamabad runs along a grid system, flanked by the Margalla Hills in the background. Photo by Thsulemani
By Paul Giblin
As the United States and Pakistan mark the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2022, U.S. officials have strived to reinvigorate a relationship that had been viewed predominantly through the lens of security, to one that reflects a partnership based on mutual support, economic ties, and people-to-people connections.
The stakes are enormous. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country with the fifth largest population in the world. With nearly 243 million people, Pakistan trails only China, India, the United States, and Indonesia in sheer numbers. Situated at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia, the country and its multiethnic people have played pivotal roles in world events throughout the ages.
Ambassador Donald Blome noted that the U.S.-Pakistan connection is at an inflection point, Sept. 29, during a commemoration at the U.S. embassy to mark the anniversary of diplomatic relations. “The world is transforming at a blinding pace. Climate change, global health challenges, energy scarcity, technology, and rapidly shifting trade and investment patterns have created an environment that demands adaptability, innovation, and partnership. I believe this set of challenges provides an opportunity to reframe the U.S.-Pakistan partnership,” he said.
Historically, the land that comprises modern-day Pakistan provided important gateways along the fabled Silk Road, a network of overland trade routes traversed by people exchanging goods and ideas between Europe, North Africa, and East Asia.
Today, 75 years after Pakistan was created with the partition of British India in 1947, its strategic importance cannot be overstated given its geographical position, and its economic, political, and security capacities.
The separation from India remains unresolved. The countries have fought two wars and a limited conflict in 1947 through 1948, 1965, and 1999, respectively, over the disputed Kashmir territory in the north. The countries observe an uneasy cease-fire along the “line of control” that divides Pakistan- and Indian-controlled Kashmir. The countries fought a third war in 1971 when India assisted the disconnected former East Pakistan to break away to become the independent nation of Bangladesh.
Pakistan is roughly twice the size of California, stretching from the snow-covered Himalayas and Karakoram mountain ranges in the north, through the lush, dissected plateaus along the Indus River, leading to alluvial plains in the south and finally the Arabian Sea at its southern edge. The landscape offers a kaleidoscope of contrasts between K2, the second-highest mountain peak in the world, rich agricultural land along the central river basin, and hard-scrabble deserts on its southern flanks.
The United States maintains an embassy in the capital city of Islamabad in north-central Pakistan, and consulates in the coastal megacity of Karachi, and the border cities of Lahore, near India; and Peshawar, near Afghanistan. Karachi is the country’s manufacturing and media hub, while Lahore anchors the tourist, culture, and food sectors. Peshawar is the traditional marketplace for cross-border agriculture trade, and a collection point for displaced people fleeing terrorism in remote regions near the Afghanistan border.
Islamabad was built as a planned city starting in 1960 to replace Karachi as the nation’s capital. Planners sited it against the scenic Margalla Hills, northeast of the historic garrison city of Rawalpindi. Unlike most cities in Asia, Islamabad was designed on a grid with wide roads and divided avenues, open spaces and parks, and designated spaces for bazaars, markets, and shopping centers.
The rapidly growing capital has a population of approximately 1.2 million, which has challenged the city to provide adequate employment opportunities, housing, and sanitation services. However, traffic remains relatively smooth, and the city lacks the noise and bustle typical of other urban centers across Asia.
Islamabad is lined with majestic public buildings including the Presidential Palace, Supreme Court building, and Parliament House—home of the National Assembly of Pakistan. The city features several universities and a designated diplomatic enclave, within which the U.S. embassy compound occupies a central location.
U.S. diplomatic efforts, under the direction of Ambassador Donald Blome, focus on a wide array of issues ranging from energy to trade and investment, health, climate change, and good governance.
Recently, the United States demonstrated its commitment to Pakistan during two crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and this summer’s catastrophic floods.
The coronavirus pandemic impacted Pakistan’s public sector and its economy as the country endured waves of lockdowns. To help confront the pandemic, the United States donated more than 78 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Pakistan through early October of this year, and provided 200 ventilators to treat those in recovery.
This summer, large swathes of Pakistan were devastated by flooding, landslides, and glacial lake outbursts exacerbated by heavy monsoon rains and glacial melt. The environmental catastrophe had caused more than 1,700 deaths through early October, destroyed or damaged 2.1 million homes, and wiped out livestock, agricultural fields, bridges and roads. The United States government donated more than $66 million in humanitarian assistance through early October.
U.S. diplomats work with Pakistanis on a wide range of issues to bolster government-to-government and people-to-people ties. The United States serves as one of the largest sources of foreign direct investment in Pakistan and is Pakistan’s largest export market. Major U.S. investments in Pakistan are concentrated in consumer goods, chemicals, energy, agriculture, business process out-sourcing, transportation, and communications.
Meanwhile, U.S. consumers purchased more than $5 billion in textiles and other Pakistani goods and services in 2021. American officials continue to work with Pakistani counterparts to strengthen regulation, intellectual property protection, and other business practices to increase trade and investment.
Regarding education, each year the U.S. Mission in Pakistan sends approximately 800 Pakistanis, ranging from high school students to mid-career professionals, to the United States on fully funded exchange programs. Upon their return, the exchange participants are welcomed into an active alumni network of more than 37,000 members—the largest alumni network supported by the Department of State.
The United States and Pakistan have maintained a complex, but generally constructive relationship during the 75 years of formal ties. At times though, the partnership has been tested and marked by tragedies.
One sobering statistic is that 19 U.S. civilian and military personnel have lost their lives in the line of duty, from terrorist attacks and in an airplane crash in Pakistan. Four died in a single day in 1979 when a mob attacked the old U.S. Embassy, trapping nearly 140 American and Pakistani employees and a journalist in a secure suite of rooms for hours as violent vandals ransacked and burned the compound in Islamabad. A Marine corporal died of a gunshot wound while observing the mob from a roof, an Army warrant officer perished in a fire in a residence building, and two Pakistani staff members died of asphyxiation elsewhere on the compound.
Two Embassy employees died in a terrorist attack in 2002, two in 2006, three in 2008, one in 2009, three in 2010, and two as recently as 2016. Additionally, Ambassador Arnold Raphel and Army Brig. Gen. Herbert Wassom died in a plane explosion that also killed then-President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in 1988.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship largely stabilized during the 20-year war in Afghanistan because of shared security interests. However, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks that killed 2,977 people on U.S. soil, strained bilateral relations. Bin Laden had been hiding in a compound in Abbottabad, about 40 miles from Islamabad, and a mile from an elite Pakistani military academy.
Today, the compound in Islamabad is one of the largest embassies the United States operates worldwide. The 37-acre site is anchored by two large office buildings that accommodate personnel for the Department, USAID, the Department of Defense, and multiple other agencies. Furthermore, the complex has separate spaces for consular functions, a health unit, and an on-site hotel for visiting personnel.
The new embassy compound was completed in 2018 to reflect both the security situation and the local climate, which alternates between sweltering heat during the summer months and biting cold that rolls down from the mountains during the winter months. The beautifully landscaped compound incorporates sustainable features aimed at reducing water and energy consumption, and is certified environmentally sustainable. It also is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Most embassy personnel choose to live on the compound in one of three eight-story apartment buildings named after nearby cities (Murree, Pindi, and Isloo) while other employees opt to live in rented apartments and houses in Islamabad. The compound’s apartment buildings have one, two, or three bedrooms, and complete kitchens, bathrooms, and in-unit laundry facilities. The off-compound houses generally are large, though non-standard in design and appearance.
The social focal point of the compound is the recreation center, which has an outdoor pool, an indoor basketball court, well-equipped gyms, exercise rooms, a restaurant and bar with indoor and outdoor seating, and a library. The compound also has outdoor tennis courts, a soccer field, a softball diamond, a dog park, walking trails and more. Karaoke nights at the Safe Haven Bar, summertime barbeques and dive-in movies at the pool, and other events presented by various special-interest clubs help promote a relatively balanced work-life schedule.
Because of the high-threat environment, spouses may only accompany direct-hire employees if they are employed in the Mission, and children are not allowed at post.
Within certain limitations, U.S. personnel can golf, hike, shop, dine, and visit salons and cultural destinations around the city. Among the most popular and accessible attractions are the Margalla Hills National Park, Faisal Mosque, the Pakistan Monument, and the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum.
The Margalla Hills—an extension of the Himaylayas within the Margalla Hills National Park—is home to exotic flora and wildlife that became even more wild during the pandemic when human foot traffic diminished along the park’s hiking trails. Local fauna includes Asiatic leopards, barking deer, wild boars, chinkara gazelle, red foxes, jackals, and packs of pushy Rhesus Macaque monkeys that are notorious for snatching food from unsuspecting people’s hands.
The Faisal Mosque is the renowned national mosque of Pakistan and was the world’s largest mosque from its completion in 1986 until 1993. The main structure’s unconventional angular design is inspired by tents used by the nomadic Bedouin people, while its four thin minarets evoke Turkish traditions. The gleaming white house of worship at the foot of the Margalla Hills can be seen from miles away, day and night.
The Pakistan Monument is a high-concept iconic structure with towering granite arches that represent the country’s different cultures. The arches appear to be a blossoming flower or a series of crescent moons emulating the Pakistani flag in motion. Inside the arches are relief carvings that depict the Pakistani independence movement and national heroes.
The Lok Virsa Heritage Museum is a sprawling museum that showcases the cultural heritage and history of Pakistan. The museum displays an extensive collection of intricate woodwork, pottery, rugs, jewelry, metalwork, block printing, and bone carvings, preserving the traditions of the diverse tribes who traveled the Silk Road ages ago, and contributed to Pakistan’s enduring rich culture today.
The long-standing U.S.-Pakistan relationship positions the countries for future cooperation, Ambassador Blome stated during the 75th anniversary commemoration. “At a moment of great change, the United States and Pakistan need to define a partnership that advances our shared interests and meets our mutual, ambitious goals. The strong foundations of our mutual relationship have prepared us to jointly address our most pressing global challenges,” he said.
Paul Giblin is a public diplomacy officer at Embassy Islamabad.