WASHINGTON: Pakistan is delaying hundreds of visas for U.S. officials and contractors, a “very serious issue” that could hamper U.S. aid programs and further strain a critical alliance in the fight against Islamic extremism, U.S. officials said on Thursday. “This is big. It's not minor,” a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity,...
WASHINGTON: Pakistan is delaying hundreds of visas for U.S. officials and contractors, a “very serious issue” that could hamper U.S. aid programs and further strain a critical alliance in the fight against Islamic extremism, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
“This is big. It's not minor,” a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding the issue was being addressed with Islamabad at the highest levels.
“The fact that we are pushing very hard and at very senior levels tells you the importance we place on it,” he said. State Department spokesman Robert Wood, confirming a report about the visas in The New York Times, said the issue had been raised with the Pakistani authorities but the reason for the delays was still unclear.
“They are well aware of these concerns,” he said. “I can't give you any reason why they are being delayed.”
The senior administration official said Pakistan had indicated it was processing the applications as quickly as it could.
“We're not satisfied with the answers we've been getting,” he said. As for Pakistan moving as quickly as it could, “I'm sure it's not happening,” the official said. “I don't think it. I know it's not happening.”
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States attributed the delay in part to bureaucratic inefficiency, coupled with an “exponential” growth in the number of Americans in Pakistan. He said there was no intentional effort to delay issuing visas.
“I wouldn't go so far as characterizing it as a deliberate campaign of harassment. Pakistan and the U.S. remain allies,” Ambassador Husain Haqqani said on CNN's “The Situation Room.”
The delay in visa approvals is threatening to hamper or disrupt U.S. aid programs aimed at stabilizing the Islamabad government and helping the Pakistani people.
Pakistan's effort to oust the Afghan Taliban in its northwestern border areas is critical to U.S. attempts to roll back the Taliban campaign in neighboring Afghanistan, where Washington is sending in 30,000 additional troops.
Washington's relations with Islamabad have already been strained by Pakistan's reluctance to heed U.S. pressure to crack down harder on militants within its own borders, with Pakistan officials saying they cannot move too fast without provoking a backlash against U.S.-aligned President Asif Ali Zardari.
Wood said the visa delays could have an effect on a range of U.S. aid programs.
“If this continues, it will indeed have an impact,” he said. “We are trying to work these issues with the government of Pakistan.”
The U.S. Congress passed legislation last October for a $7.5 billion nonmilitary aid program over the next five years for Pakistan. The first tranche of that aid, amounting to nearly $1.5 billion for the next year, was agreed to by appropriations committees in Congress over the past week.
“We're committed to trying to help the people of Pakistan. And these programs … will be impacted if we are unable to get our people in to do the work,” the senior administration official said, noting Congress was watching.
'VERY, VERY SERIOUS ISSUE'
“This is a very, very serious issue for us,” the official said, adding, “We can't do our work if we don't have those visas renewed or … processed.” The affected programs included agriculture, security and military, he said.
A senior Pentagon official, while declining to comment on the visa issue, acknowledged, “There are tensions on both sides.
“There are things that Pakistan wants that we're not able to do, things that we want that Pakistan is not able to do,” David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense, told reporters.
“Sometimes our discussions with our Pakistani colleagues are very, very difficult. Other times they are very, very positive,” he said, adding there was an increasingly positive trend “both in discussions and results.”
His comments followed high-level bilateral defense talks in Washington earlier this month, which Sedney said gave the Obama administration a chance to explain a war strategy involving an increase of 30,000 forces into Afghanistan. AGENCIES