How Safe Is Pakistan?
Barbed wire outside the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Photos by Daniel Sagalyn.
Last month, I was one of 10 U.S. journalists visiting Pakistan on a reporting trip sponsored by the East-West Center, a Hawaii-based organization that promotes understanding among the United States, Asia and the Pacific. Before taking off, many friends and family asked the same question: Is Pakistan a safe place for Americans to visit?
Given near-daily reports of sectarian bombings, targeted killings and Taliban insurgency in Pakistan, it was a legitimate question.
The perception of Pakistan as a violent place, according to some business leaders in the country, is having a disastrous impact on the nation’s economy. Pakistani textile executives we met on the trip complained that coverage of Pakistan by Western media is too bleak and depicts the country as overly dangerous. The overdramatized portrayal, they say, is bad for business.
Kohinoor Mills just outside Lahore, Pakistan.
“Our biggest problem that as a textile community we are facing is the inability of our international buyers to visit Pakistan,” said Aamir Fayyaz Sheikh, chief executive officer of Kohinoor Mills, which produces fabric that ends up in clothing sold around the world. “People who are potentially looking to buy from Pakistan, they don’t want to come here. What they see on the television, what they read in the media, about all the activities that are going on in Pakistan … that’s really putting them off from traveling to our country.”
Without meeting face to face, buyers sometimes have a hard time getting an understanding of what production capabilities exist in Pakistan, the textile leader said. “It’s very difficult to do everything on an email or telephone,” Sheikh explained. “Sometimes big buyers need to come and feel the place.”
Trying to encourage foreigners to visit Pakistan has been very difficult since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks.
“When we try to convince somebody from the U.S. to come here and meet us here, in their mind comes, ‘OK, once we get out of the airport, some sniper is going to be sitting somewhere and is going to shoot us down,'” the textile executive said.
Textiles in Pakistan are big business, accounting for $12.4 billion in exports and 53 percent of all exports from the South Asian nation, according to the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association. About 15 million Pakistanis owe their jobs to textiles.
So just how safe is Pakistan for prospective buyers or investors, or visitors? It’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion.
“Getting an on-the-ground look is clearly the best way to assess a business possibility, but in today’s Pakistan you need to think about when a trip is really needed, how long you stay, and how you manage it,” said Teresita Schaffer, a former State Department official who has worked in Pakistan. “Keeping a low profile, avoiding crowded places, limiting how much publicity you give to your trip and your travel plans, and similar ‘management techniques'” would be important factors to keep in mind when traveling to Pakistan, said the former ambassador.
Schaffer, who is now a senior adviser for South Asia for the international consulting firm McLarty Associates, said “political violence last year was down from its record levels of the year before, but there is lots of anecdotal evidence of increased crime — both muggings and, more worrisome, kidnappings.”
During our recent trip, we were able to travel freely around Islamabad and Lahore without a security escort, and there were no incidents jeopardizing our safety.
One of our stops was Fort Lahore, a complex built in the 16th century with gardens, stately palaces, and halls in the heart of the Old City. Pakistanis from all over the country visit this historical site.
We also went to the Wagah Border Ceremony to watch Pakistani and Indian soldiers march and lower the flag. View a slide show of the event:
Many Pakistanis were welcoming and asked if they could pose for pictures with us. They seemed happy to have us visiting their country and most of us on the trip felt safe.
However, many of us were surprised at how many security checkpoints and barricades there were throughout Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.
The Marriott Hotel, which had been attacked by a suicide truck bomber in September 2008 resulting in 53 deaths and more than 260 wounded, today is an armed fortress. Driving in front of the hotel often requires a checkpoint stop. It’s hardly unique in Islamabad where many building have security outposts with armed guards, barbed wire, barricades and watchtowers.
While riding the Metro Bus in Lahore, a new elevated bus line that runs through the city, many Pakistanis were friendly, asking where I was from and what I thought about their country. One man in Western clothing, however, warned me: “Pakistan is not a safe country. You should get off at the next stop.”
A couple of weeks after traveling to Pakistan, the State Department issued a revised travel advisory, urging Americans to “defer all non-essential travel to Pakistan, [because the] presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups poses a potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan.” The State Department warning went on to say that “threat reporting indicates terrorist groups continue to seek opportunities to attack locations where U.S. citizens and Westerners are known to congregate or visit. Terrorists and criminal groups regularly resort to kidnapping for ransom.”
While this warning listed almost half-dozen terrorists attacks that have taken place this year, no Americans have been killed. The textile executives lamented these types of State Department warnings, and told our group that no shipments have ever been delayed because of terrorism, and that no visiting businessmen have been killed either.