ISLAMABAD: Another diplomatic row with the United States is brewing since Islamabad has barred a number of American military men from leaving the country because of expired visas and other documentary irregularities.
There are varying claims about the number of US soldiers denied exit from the country. Some sources claim that about 20-30 people have been affected, while others contend the figure is slightly less than one hundred.
The men were assigned to the US Office of Defence Representative in Pakistan (ODRP), which oversees Washington`s military relations with Islamabad, including training and equipment.
Most of these people had been working on different projects with the Pakistan military. Some of the soldiers had overstayed their visas while a majority of them had expired NOCs.
The US military men posted in Pakistan are issued NOCs by the Joint Services Headquarters covering the period of their assignment. The NOCs are primarily meant for visa purposes, but sources said they had stayed in Pakistan beyond the approved period and some of them had even got their visas extended without current NOCs.
The issue has been under discussion between the Foreign Office and the US embassy, but a resolution is nowhere in sight.
The Foreign Office was tight-lipped on the matter because of its sensitive nature. However, a US military spokesman admitted that there were problems. “ODRP and the Embassy have been in discussions with Pakistani authorities over visa renewals.
We hope to be able to work through this issue,” he said, but chose not to reply to queries about how seriously was the matter affecting the already strained bilateral ties and what measures were being taken to resolve it.
A Pakistani military official, trying to play down the matter, said: “These are procedural issues.”
Pakistan and the US haven`t been able to come out of the distrust that followed the detention of CIA operative Raymond Davis.
It was said that ISI and CIA had got down to reshaping their relationship before Davis`s release by addressing some of the thorny matters like complaints about US arrogance or heavy-handed approach in dealings with Pakistan. But shortly after Raymond Davis flew off, CIA fired missiles from a pilot-less drone at a tribal gathering in North Waziristan.
Pakistan pulled out of a trilateral ministerial meeting on Afghanistan in protest against the drone strikes and called for revisiting the fundamentals of relationship.
While this was happening on the diplomatic front, security agencies were directed to get tough with the Americans.
In addition to the strong application of immigration rules, movements of the American embassy`s non-diplomatic staff outside Islamabad and their station of duty have been restricted.
A revision of the visa policy is also on the cards. Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir is likely to visit Washington later this month to discuss measures to revive the dysfunctional relationship.