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Fear and Loathing in Pakistan

Islamabad, Pakistan

The US Embassy in Islamabad is a tense and embattled place. The embassy complex is fortress-like, sequestered in a secure area to the east of the city known as the "diplomatic enclave," whose approaches are guarded by multiple security checkpoints. The compound's outer perimeter is festooned with barbed wire and towering walls. Arriving vehicles are stopped for bomb-checks, sealed into a quarantined area with high walls on either side and heavy iron doors at front and back. Embassy visitors are required to wear visible badges at all times--and they are checked frequently.

This is understandable in a city where anti-Americanism is on the rise, despite Congress's recent pledge of $7.5 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan. (Indeed, that aid package, bizarrely enough, is part of the problem.) I heard one American (who does not work at the embassy) say that if he ever had a car accident in Islamabad, he would flee the scene if possible; the risks of being an American at in a place where a racuous crowd would inevitably gather are just too great. And when the entourage of staff and reporters traveling with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen arrived at a Pakistani Air Force base on Wednesday evening, we were subjected to a nearly hourlong delay, as every one of our bags was passed through an x-ray bomb detector for reasons that seemed more about harassment than security. (Who ever heard of screening the bags of people getting off the plane?)

At the heart of this problem is the anti-Americanism and conspiracy-mongering of Pakistan's media, which I saw first-hand when I read through a large stack of local papers at the embassy. So I was glad to find on my return to Washington this week that the latest print issue of TNR features a really top-notch article by Nicholas Schmindle about Shireen Mazari, a Pakistani journalist who's been dubbed "the Anne Coulter of Pakistan," and who has been responsible for countless stories like the one that recently speculated about whether a Wall Street Journal reporter in the country is actually a CIA spy, potentially endangering his life. When I was Islamabad, one newspaper (I believe it was Mazari's The Nation, which is generally the worst offender) ran a story which included the wacko claim, attributed to Seymour Hersh, that a "death squad" backed by Dick Cheney was behind the 2007 assassination of Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto as well as the 2005 murder of Lebanese prime minister Raffik Hariri. (It seems this nutty rumor has been floating around since at least May, even though Hersh himself has publicly denied saying such a thing) In Islamabad, American officials told us about another story that identified--complete with photograph--a building in the city purportedly housing workers for the security contractor Xe (nee Blackwater). In fact, the building was home to Western aid workers--at least until they fled to safer environs that same day. 

Stories like this fan the rising flames of anti-Americanism in Islamabad. A reporter traveling with me had hoped to meet a colleague at a coffee shop in central Islamabad, until embassy workers warned him that the shop was known to be under surveillance by people who might like to kidnap a Westerner. One embassy official told me that he enjoys dining out at Islamabad's restaurants--but when pressed admitted that he never lingers for coffee and dessert. "You try to be out within an hour," he said. (The same goes for activities like grocery shopping.) The Pakistani media surely also contributes to the growing harassment of U.S. embassy officials, who are finding their visas inexplicably denied and their vehicles pointlessly searched at security checkpoints around the city.  So it's understandable that the vibe within the embassy compound--a deceptively bucolic place of walking paths and tennis courts that seems more college campus than  embattled diplomatic outpost--feels so tense. After all, even behind the barricades and razor wire safety is not guaranteed. We all remember the 1979 storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. But less remembered is the way an angry mob overran and torched our embassy in Islamabad that same year. One U.S. Marine was killed, and it was a miracle that dozens more American lives weren't lost. (As Steve Coll recounts in his masterful book Ghost Wars, the Pakistani government barely lifted a finger to help.)

The cause of that deadly riot? False Pakistani media reports that the U.S. had orchestrated an attack on Mecca. Lies have consequences--sometimes deadly ones.

Follow Michael Crowley on Twitter: @crowleytnr