By Robin Fernandez
KABUL: Situated in the Karte Parwan neighbourhood of Kabul is Pakistan’s diplomatic mission. Steeped in history, the embassy building and the adjoining ambassador’s residence together form the country’s single biggest mission in the world – a frontispiece to our public diplomacy abroad.
Inaugurated in July 2012, the sprawling grounds of the Quaid-e-Azam Complex cover more than 26 acres of land that once belonged to the British Legation in Kabul. Today it may well be Pakistan’s busiest diplomatic mission.
On any week day (from Sunday to Thursday) one is likely to find thousands of Afghans queuing up outside the Pakistan Embassy for a visa. “Up to 12,000 multiple [entry] visas are issued every day. Not a single application has been rejected so far,” says Ambassador Muhammad Sadiq. This figure may seem high, according to officials, but it pales in comparison to the sheer number of people who make border crossings every day between the two countries. Currently, Pakistani officials say, 56,000 people travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan through both designated and undesignated crossing points daily — mainly for trade and business purposes.
The main embassy buildings are now housed in what used to be the dispensary of the British Legation buildings in the Afghan capital. In one corner of the premises, English-language and computer classes are held for Afghan students, especially those in the neighborhood. “The classes are free and are part of the embassy’s effort to encourage education,” says an official.
The next door residential complex of the ambassador is much grander, still reflecting the colonial glory that Lord George Curzon, the then foreign secretary, had wanted Britain’s top envoy in Kabul to have. Curzon, also a former viceroy general of India, did not live to see the majestic Legation structure, dying two years before its completion. The Legation buildings in Kabul sprang up some eight years after Britain signed the 1919 Treaty of Rawalpindi which officially recognised the independence of Afghanistan.
Though Pakistan’s right to the Legation buildings’ ownership was recognised by the early 1960s, Islamabad had to wait three more decades for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to finally accede to its possession. But the property did not pass into Pakistan’s hands until another decade and a half. By that time it had already been ransacked by a violent mob and suffered a vicious arson attack. Several buildings, including a church and smaller residences, were razed to the ground. Perhaps the only building that escaped harm was the clock tower that stands near one of the boundary walls.
When Ambassador Sadiq moved into the gleaming white palatial building this year following a massive renovation of the premises, President Hamid Karzai took a gentle swipe at the envoy. “I see you have moved into your vice-regal seat,” Karzai was quoted as telling Sadiq.
The entire building was reconstructed in a record time. “Despite the huge challenge, it took us about six months to restore the complex,” a Pakistan Embassy official said. Another official said the funds saved through the [earlier used] Wazir Akbar Khan mission were spent on the restoration work. “We used that money for restoration and saved thousands of dollars in the bargain,” the official explained.
From the vantage point of the ambassador’s residence, one can see a freshly-manicured cricket ground and an equally impressive soccer pitch. And in the distance one can see the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains. The sight would have certainly pleased Curzon no end.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2012.