The State Department on Thursday expressed serious concern about delays by the Pakistani government in the issuance of visas for officials and contractors assigned to U.S. diplomatic posts in Pakistan. U.S. officials say that if the pattern continues, it could impede expanded aid and military cooperation programs with Pakistan.
The State Department has taken the unusual step of going public with concerns about what is described here as large-scale Pakistani foot-dragging in the issuance of visas for U.S. officials and contractors seeking to enter Pakistan to implement U.S. aid programs.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said the delays affect hundreds of U.S. diplomats and others newly assigned to Pakistan, and those already there seeking to extend their stays.
Wood said the United States has raised the issue at senior levels with the Pakistani government and is concerned about the impact the delays could have on U.S. military and civilian aid programs for Pakistan, which are being sharply increased to help that country cope with extremist threats and economic problems.
"We are working with our Pakistani counterparts to try to resolve these issues, and we are working very hard," he said. "In terms of the kind of impact it may have, I would suspect that if this continues, it will indeed have an impact on our ability to do the work that we want to do to help the Pakistan people in terms of fighting terrorism, in terms of economic development, a whole range of issues. So we're trying to work these issues with the government of Pakistan."
The issue surfaced in a New York Times story on Thursday from Islamabad that quoted U.S. officials there as blaming elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence services for a pattern of harassment against embassy personnel.
The newspaper said U.S. officials believe the visa delays and other actions, such as frequent searches of embassy vehicles, reflect resentment in some quarters for the expansion of the U.S. presence in Pakistan to administer growing aid programs, and resentment over U.S. demands that Pakistan step up action against extremists.
The New York Times quoted Pakistani officials as complaining about "arrogant" behavior by U.S. personnel.
A senior U.S. official who spoke to reporters here said he would not take issue with the idea that Pakistani security authorities, as opposed to civilian officials, are behind the visa delays.
He said the problem, which extends back several months, has been raised with Pakistani officials "at very senior levels" and that Pakistani explanations have been unsatisfactory.
The senior official acknowledged that the public standing of the United States and other Western countries in Pakistan "is not all that high." But he said Pakistani officials should not act on the basis of opinion polls and should understand that the United States, with its increased aid commitments, is trying to help bring stability to the country.
He also noted that the U.S. Congress, which approved a five-year, $7.5 billion civilian aid program for Pakistan in October, pays close attention to such issues.