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Karachi, diplomacy, US consulate, foreign service

The Fragile American and the Next Benghazi

A perspective from a former US diplomat who served in Karachi, Pakistan.

Words: Dan Spokojny
Pictures: Usama Tayyab

Religious leaders in Pakistan were taking to their pulpits to deliver rousing sermons denouncing the United States in 2012. They were joining a growing chorus across the Muslim world, enraged by a bigoted, amateurish film trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims,” which had appeared on YouTube insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The rumor (which turned out to be untrue) was that the US government had produced the film to humiliate Muslims, and many were calling those responsible for the video to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. The attack in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead, including a US ambassador, had occurred just days earlier, on September 11, 2012.

Shortly after, our contacts in the local police alerted us that Islamist groups prone to violence were planning large demonstrations directed at my home, the US Consulate in Karachi. The protests were set to begin immediately following Friday afternoon prayer, during which fiery anti-American sermons would whip followers into a frenzy. Plans for the protest had spread throughout the city of 20 million like wildfire. Religious organizations had set up something like a phone tree: The organizer sends out instructions via text message to his associates, who forward it to their contacts, and so on. The leadership at our outpost grew deeply worried. We could see it on their faces. Unlike Afghanistan or Iraq, there was no US military allowed in Pakistan to protect our facility.

When afternoon prayer finished, people poured out of the mosques and converged on the main arteries of Karachi, immediately shutting down the city.  Our security team initiated a full lockdown of the Consulate. Everyone was required to bunker inside the chancery, behind locked doors. Roughly 1,000 protesters were expected to show up — more than enough to overwhelm our security. Before the spasm of protests subsided, over 100,000 would amass at our front gate.


In all my time living in Karachi as a US diplomat, I never felt personally threatened. I was greeted by locals with hugs and smiles, invited into stranger’s homes, offered lavish spreads of food, and generally made to feel welcome by Pakistanis’ enormous hospitality. But the threat of violence lurked like a monster in the beginning of a horror movie, sensed nearby, but not actually seen. At night I would sit on my balcony and listen to the crack of gunfire around the city, or the occasional rumble of an explosion, and many mornings I would read in the newspapers about a fresh round of killings — but I had never personally witnessed violence.

The tragic attack in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens was murdered, occurred six months into my tour, on September 11, 2012. I had never met Stevens, but his death hit me hard. I pored through news articles describing his life, and saw in him something of the person I had always wanted to become. Stevens was the archetypal diplomat, a “role model to… the young diplomats that strive to walk in his footsteps,” said President Barack Obama. He was far from the timid, martini swirling diplomat often pictured in movies. He had spent most of his adult life in difficult assignments throughout the Middle East and Africa, dating back to the early 1980’s. When the president appointed him ambassador to Libya after the fall of Muammar Qadafi, he slipped into rebel-held Benghazi aboard a cargo ship to reestablish our diplomatic presence in the warring nation. Gunfire could be heard as his ship pulled ashore, and a car bomb went off in the parking lot of his hotel on his first night on the job. He knew the danger. “He risked his life to stop a tyrant then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “The world needs more Chris Stevenses.”

The same day of the attack in Libya, demonstrators in Egypt scaled the wall of the US Embassy and pulled down the flag to protest a bigoted, anti-Muslim film produced by a preacher in the “Innocence of Muslims” film. We now know that the attack in Benghazi was a coordinated terrorist attack, rather than a spontaneous protest. Regardless, I was certain that my work as a diplomat in Karachi had just become a whole lot harder. The video had deeply offended Muslims, prompting angry anti-American protests around the world, and I knew there would soon be trouble in Pakistan as well.


“I joined the Foreign Service to go to cocktail parties in Paris,” a long-retired diplomat once told me. Generations of diplomacy had been conducted in the grand halls of Western capitals: The treaty of Versailles, the Potsdam conference, the Paris peace accords. But the new generation of diplomats were different. We joined the Foreign Service after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, knowing that unlike our predecessors, all of us would be required to serve in dangerous locales, often alongside our military colleagues in active war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan.

I joined the Foreign Service to go to Pakistan. In my mind, our mission in Pakistan, an at-times antagonistic nuclear power, was (and remains) at the forefront of our foreign policy, a complex but vital diplomatic challenge with profound implications for our national security. I found its draw irresistible.

But why does the United States care about Pakistan?

Pakistan’s importance derives firstly from its geography; it is a focal point for the stability and economic interdependence of South Asia. To Pakistan’s north lies restive Afghanistan; much of the instability during our 13 years of war in Afghanistan has been exported from across the mountains in the ungoverned tribal regions of Pakistan. To Pakistan’s east lies the world’s largest democracy, India. Since the day the two countries were born, India and Pakistan have remained locked in a state of conflict, occasionally teetering dangerously on the edge of nuclear war. Pakistan maintained a better relationship with its neighbor to the west, Iran, which owes its own nuclear program to a Pakistani nuclear scientist’s black market dealings. China also shares a stretch of Pakistan’s border, and, eager to maintain a foothold in its neighborhood, targets more economic aid to Pakistan than almost anywhere else.

I joined the Foreign Service to go to Pakistan. In my mind, our mission in Pakistan remains at the forefront of our foreign policy, a complex but vital diplomatic challenge with profound implications for our national security. I found its draw irresistible.

The man known as “the Father of Pakistan,” Muhammad Ali Jinnah, envisioned Pakistan as a nation which prized tolerance. But Jinnah would have difficulty recognizing today’s Pakistan, his dream torn to shreds by demons primarily of the state’s own making. Violent militants, initially cultivated by the military to oppose India’s control of the disputed Kashmir territory, and later unleashed in Afghanistan to wage jihad against the occupying Soviets, have now metastasized into a violent insurgency, operating with impunity domestically and exporting their terror abroad. Pakistan’s leaders have too-often glorified the militants’ fight against India, Afghanistan, and the West, shifting the body politic to the right.

Pakistan appears unable to wean itself from these groups, who have embedded themselves into the very fabric of the nation’s political and cultural landscape. Groups labeled terrorist organizations by the UN, and even by the government of Pakistan, operate openly, building goodwill through charity work, educating youth in strict religious education, and even participating in elected politics. They murder outspoken reformers in media, civil society, and government, effectively silencing voices of tolerance. The country is reaping what it has sown.

Pakistani instability is not a problem the world can ignore. Despite existential economic and security challenges, Pakistan has grown too big to fail. It has recently become the fifth largest country on earth, and its nuclear arsenal has recently been described as the fastest growing on earth. Since the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan has made itself an indispensable partner in our war against al Qaida, and a complicated partner in Afghanistan, where more than 46,000 civilians have been killed and 2.2 million Afghans have been displaced. The United States’ enormous financial assistance to Pakistan — $70 billion since 1948, including at least half of it since 2001 — is a reflection of the importance American leaders place on Pakistan. Pakistan’s importance only grows with the United States departure from Afghanistan.

If Pakistan is the focal point for stability in South Asia, then the southern port city of Karachi is Pakistan’s lynchpin. With a metropolitan population of over 23 million people, it is by far the largest city in Pakistan. Karachi is the financial capital of Pakistan, hosting the stock market, and most of the largest banks and multinational businesses. It contributes 40 percent of the country’s GDP, and half of its tax revenue. Karachi is Pakistan’s melting pot, the tie that binds.

In spite of this — or perhaps because of it — Karachi is also the most volatile city in the country.


The anger over the “Innocence of Muslim” video simmered below the surface for a few days following the riots in Egypt and the attack in Benghazi before exploding onto the streets of Pakistan.

The first major demonstrations materialized on Friday, September 14. By Sunday it became clear that the protest movement was much larger than anyone predicted. Thousands of  demonstrators marched down the various major arteries in Karachi, including one group that grew increasingly unruly as it approached the US consulate. We heard reports of American flags torched, and an effigy of President Obama was burned. The protesters ransacked store fronts and set ablaze a number of well-known cinemas, seen as associated with corrosive Western values. The crowd gathered rocks, sticks, and other makeshift weapons, preparing for a confrontation with the police.

From the outside, Consulate Karachi looks like a fortress — an unfortunate reality of security requirements that dictate the architecture of our new generation of diplomatic facilities. Tall concrete walls surround the compound, rung with barbed wire, and dotted with cameras and guard towers. Locally hired private security personnel control all access points and patrol the grounds inside our walls. The chancery — the main office building in which all of our classified information is safeguarded — is heavily reinforced, and access is controlled by a Marines Security Guard.

Nevertheless, the situation for the Americans inside the Consulate became tense. Our security team loaded their weapons and took up positions around and atop the building, girding for a fight. The rest of the Americans inside the office at that point were escorted to the safest room in the building — a windowless, steel-enclosed space equipped with food rations, water, and chemical toilets.

A plaque on the wall at the entrance of the chancery in Karachi lists the names of almost a dozen diplomats who had been killed while serving in Karachi, serving as a reminder to those who walk through those doors of the dangers diplomats face. But the message of the plaque is not to turn our backs and hide. It is a reminder of the importance of carrying on their legacy of engagement.

The police and paramilitary troops had set up barricades along the main road leading to the consulate, hoping to keep the crowd a safe distance from our compound. Forty-foot shipping containers stenciled “police” blocked the road, directing traffic away from our compound walls. The Geneva Convention requires a host government to protect foreign diplomatic facilities, and despite the tension in our relationship, the Pakistanis were determined not to let things get out of hand. As word of the protests spread, the police deployed 180 additional police officers in riot gear to the perimeter of our consulate in addition to the normal checkpoints manned by police and paramilitary forces. But the riot police protecting our consulate were still badly outnumbered. As the crowd approached, the police deployed water cannons and tear gas, and then fired warning shots into the air in an attempt to disperse the crowd. The protesters were undeterred, pressing forward in waves, eventually breaking through the cordon and making it to the gates of the consulate.

Media broadcast the protests unfolding across Pakistan in real time. Pictures and video showed protesters hurling stones and tear gas canisters back at the police. “Our war will continue until America is destroyed!” chanted some of the protesters. “Dog, dog, America is a dog!” chanted others. One placard read, “O Obama, we are all Osama.” A man was photographed spray painting “Down with the USA” on our front gate. In the chaos, a group of men were able to breach our outermost wall and smash some windows at the gate. One protester was killed at the doorstep of our consulate, and another demonstrator died days later of injuries sustained during the chaos. Dozens were injured, including a number of police. Police vehicles were torched by the mob, and millions of dollars of property destroyed.

In the interest of full disclosure: I was not in the consulate during that first episode. But it would not be the last.

The fury unleashed against the United States was about much more than just the anti-Muslim film. It had been building up for years. Following the 9/11 attack on the United States, we built a strong relationship with the military in Pakistan to help fight the war against terrorism, funneling billions of dollars to the country in support. But the average Pakistani saw little benefit from this relationship. In fact, many felt that we were helping prop up corrupt or dictatorial governments at their expense. Despite our support, Pakistan’s economy languished while terrorism flourished, fueling widespread suspicion that our true aims were to undermine and humiliate Pakistan. By 2013, more than 90 percent of Pakistanis disapproved of American leadership. Wild anti-American conspiracy theories were rampant.

Misunderstanding and resentment grew deepest within the religious community, which plays an out-sized role in defining our relationship with the people of Pakistan. We often ignored or dismissed the hardline religious community because we find their values and tactics unsavory. Our domestic political establishment reinforced this dissociation. For example, a tweet broadcast by the American Embassy in Cairo condemning the anti-Muslim film became embroiled in the US presidential election campaign going on at the time, when Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of “apology diplomacy.” The offending tweet was sent out mere hours before the riots in Cairo, but seems anodyne in retrospect: “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

The Obama administration widely condemned the anti-Muslim video, but many of us diplomats learned a hard lesson: Engaging with anti-American sentiment is professionally and politically dangerous. The Embassy’s twitter account was quickly deleted, and the offending diplomat was relieved of his position.

Now that the protests flared up in Karachi, we too needed to decide how to engage the religious organizations that were gathering tens of thousands of angry Pakistanis on our doorstep. Our decision making was certainly colored and made much more conservative by what had just happened in Egypt and Benghazi.


The protest in Karachi quieted as night approached on September 16, but it was now open season on the Americans, and seemingly every religious group in the city was announcing plans for their own protests against the Consulate. It quickly became clear that we were to endure many weeks of protests and anger. We were asked to report to the office the next carrying our “go bags” — just a few essentials in case we needed to make a quick evacuation to the airport.

At 5am the next morning, I typed off a quick email to my family, “the protest was large and mostly peaceful, and the police did an excellent job protecting the area…  Our team is well prepared.” I did not want them to worry. “No news is good news,” I added, foolishly. “No news is NOT good news to a parent,” my father retorted over email. “Be safe!” he pleaded. Indeed, “be safe” was the same message we were hearing from Washington. President Obama himself reportedly weighed in, demanding “maximum caution, minimum risk.” The White House reached out directly to our leadership in-country to emphasize the order. The administration could not afford to risk any more Americans getting killed in the wake of the Benghazi attack. Our security team was asked to send back hourly reports to headquarters describing the consulate’s security situation.

As the protests swelled and grew more and more raucous outside our compound, we huddled under our desks, where we would spend much of the coming week. Many of us had brought blankets and snacks to make our shelters a bit more comfortable. I remember seeing one of the young Marines jog down the hall past my door, gear clanging against his body armor, rifle in hand. I recalled a t-shirt I once saw, “if you see a Marine running — run the opposite direction.”

Unlike so-called war zones such as Afghanistan, there was no American military presence in Pakistan. There would be no troops or helicopters to rescue us if things went sideways. If the crowds outside decided to storm our compound, there would be nothing we could do to stop them. The unpredictability of the situation fed an undercurrent of fear. Plans were drawn up to mobilize an “internal defense team” as a last stand in the event our compound was breached. I remember wondering whether Ambassador Stevens had picked up a weapon in his final hours.

Consulate Karachi’s leadership team met frequently to discuss security conditions, but there was little capacity for discussion about the nature of the protests or how we might respond diplomatically to the anger being directed at us. Instead, the first and last question was about security. Washington’s only priority, we were told again and again, was to make sure nobody got hurt.

All off-compound travel was prohibited, a restriction that would remain in place for weeks. Our ability to engage with the outside world became minimal. Many of us grew frustrated by the restrictions. If safety was the only priority, why should I be in Pakistan at all? I would have been safer back in Washington, doing my work via phone and email. This was an important moment for our relationship with the people of Pakistan, but we were locked up inside of our little fortress, literally hiding under our desks. This was not why I joined the Foreign Service. This was not why I volunteered to leave my family and friends to move to Karachi. I remember crouching under my desk, growing increasingly upset.

The anti-American backlash had little counterweight from the Pakistani government or news media, and our defensive posture was not helping. As a political officer, my job was to develop personal relationships with the political, religious, and cultural leaders of the city. I believed that if we could sit down with some of those who were planning protests, a number of whom I had met many times, I would be able to help my country understand their fury. Maybe I could moderate some of their rhetoric and help prevent further violence. My colleagues and I petitioned in vain for a loosening of the restrictions imposed on us. It would actually improve our security, we argued, if we could learn more about the plans and intentions of the protest movements. Unfortunately, with the protests showing no sign of subsiding, the order soon came down from Washington directing most of the consulate staff, including myself, to “temporarily relocate” to a safer country. Fewer warm bodies at the consulate meant it would be easier to evacuate in case our security was breached.

The decision to “relocate” was not well received by me and my colleagues. Being forced to abandon our posts at this important moment was heartbreaking.  The decision did not appear to derive from a sober analysis of the risk, but rather an over-abundance of caution which devalued the impact we could provide on the ground. The drive to the airport under the cover of darkness that night was the low point of my professional career.

Three weeks of continuous anti-American protest would rage before the fervor over the anti-Muslim YouTube video died down and we were allowed to return to Pakistan. In all, Karachi experienced about 45 major protests, each one as dangerous and unpredictable as the one that preceded it. The movement crescendoed on September 21 when the Government of Pakistan, rattled by the intensity of the public anger, declared an impromptu national holiday to honor the Prophet. Given an air of legitimacy, and the day off work, the protesters in Karachi swelled their ranks to well over 100,000 people. Twenty-three more people were killed that day, and more than 160 injured. Banks, businesses, and restaurants with Western ties were vandalized or burned to the ground.  Throughout the protests, the security at our consulate’s fortress-like walls held, and no Americans were hurt.


My driver was waiting for me at the entrance of the Consulate to escort me to my meeting. The SUV featured fully armored panels, inch thick bulletproof windows, run-flat tires, and a snorkel-like exhaust pipe that protruded over the top of the roof so it could operate in a few feet of water. Under what conditions the snorkel would be useful was unclear, but it might as well have been a star spangled banner — everyone in the city knew that it signified an American diplomat’s vehicle.  My Pakistani bodyguard sat in the front seat, a menacing scowl protruding from beneath his thick mustache, and a large handgun poorly concealed beneath his suit. He would certainly not help build rapport in my upcoming meeting, and probably do more to attract the wrong kind of attention than keep me safe.

Traveling outside our compound walls after weeks of violent protests, I was struck that Karachi had returned to its normal bustle, displaying its trademark resilience. But there were still scattered signs of the damage caused by the violence. Light poles which had been torn down by protesters lay abandoned in the median, their wiring exposed like mangled corpses. Chunks of cinder pried from road’s infrastructure during the rioting still littered the side of the road. We passed by the blackened shell of a torched police car. The walls were covered with graffiti, demarcating the territory of various ethnic-political parties. Near the ramp to the highway, someone had spray painted “FUCK YOU AMERICA.”

I was headed to a sprawling madrasa complex run by Mufti Rahim,* an influential religious leader who, weeks earlier, had organized one of the many massive demonstrations against the United States. Mufti Rahim greeted me warmly with a smile, a handshake and a half-hug. His squinted eyes and thick framed glasses reminded me of Henry Kissinger. His thick beard was dyed burgundy and jutted forward toward me. I shook hands with a line of about ten of his associates, some beaming ear to ear with the pleasure of shaking my hand, and others with faces of stone.

The Mufti led me and my colleagues into his cluttered office. We politely snacked on cookies with sugary tea as Rahim proudly described his school. We gazed through the window into a concrete courtyard as big as a football field, surrounded by classrooms brimming with students. My dark-suited security detail was fanned out across the compound grounds to guard me, the fragile American.

He complained that his people “are suffering from both sides: our ties to the United States have been severed by anti-Muslim sentiment, and we are under attack from extremists in our own country.” When the conversation turned to the recent protests over the film, Rahim explained, “Muslims across the world feel intellectually terrorized by this film.” We responded that the idea of the film was personally abhorrent to us, and I spoke to him about the vibrant and thriving Muslim communities near my home town of Detroit. Rahim steered the discussion to a criticism of the American conception of freedom of speech. He was skeptical of our fervent adherence to the principle; he was aware, for instance, that many European countries had outlawed the publication of hate speech, and urged us to do the same. Eventually, my bodyguard peaked into the window, looking a bit on edge. It was time to go. “We must continue this dialogue,” Rahim concluded warmly, and we promised to talk again soon.
For my meetings, I enlisted the help of a talented colleague who was a fluent Urdu speaker. He was extraordinarily charming with the religious leaders. “That’s right, I’m an American Citizen,” he would explain over and over with a disarming smile. “Yes, I’m a US diplomat.” Their faces would light up.

Our interlocutors were eager to educate us in the many ways in which the United States and the West had violated their religious sensibility. Many of the offenses, in their retelling, began centuries ago. Some of the claims were outlandish, but taken together, we got a sense of the deep distrust between our countries.

We met with the chief of an ultra-orthodox Islamist political party whose strict religious ideology was similar to the Taliban’s, but his party was not known for violence. The gentleman, portly and charismatic — I would almost describe him as “jolly” — suggested that “a small number of troublemakers” were responsible for giving religious organizations a bad name, but that anti-American sentiment in Pakistan was high because “people do not feel that you respect our religion.” He counseled that we could only build trust through personal contacts, and asked that we consider offering more exchange programs for average Pakistanis and religious scholars to improve mutual understanding. It is a truism of representing the United States abroad: Even many of those who outwardly profess anti-American rhetoric still would love to visit the United States.

Word of our openness had spread. We received, for example, a surprisingly courteous and cogent invitation to meet with the political wing of a sanctioned terrorist organization. Even terrorists were interested in enlightening the Americans, it seemed! Needless to say, we declined the meeting.

Some of our most productive meetings were with the Shia community of Karachi, who were especially anti-American due to our longstanding trouble with Iran, the center of the Shia faith. We connected with an influential Shia spiritual leader who had publicly called for calm during the worst days of the protest, and he agreed to meet with us at the Consul General’s residence. Mr. Ali* chain-smoked cigarettes while he explained that “extremism is gaining ground in Pakistan.” Hundreds of innocent Shia Pakistanis, who make up perhaps 20 percent of the population, had been murdered that year in targeted bombings and shootings. He lamented the cycle of tit-for-tat killings of Sunni and Shia leaders in Karachi, and worried aloud that the youth of his flock would learn to solve their problems only through violence rather than dialogue.

We told Ali of our own inability to connect with the local Shia community. Our Consul General’s first week on the job months earlier was greeted with a story planted on the front page of a local newspaper accusing him of orchestrating the murder of a busload of Shia piligrims, which would have been farcical if Karachiites were not so predisposed to believe such suggestions. Ali agreed to help, and connected us to a network of wealthy and powerful Shia business executives who were working quietly behind the scenes to undermine religious extremism in their community and sponsor voices of tolerance.

We also traveled into the rural territory north of Karachi to meet with local leaders who were concerned about growing extremism taking root in their villages. A fundamentalist political party not normally associated with the province had just organized a rally attended by a half-million attendees in the region. “We don’t like these mullahs,” one of my contacts stated. “They are growing in size and wealth, and are showing they can be influential.” Another contact complained that “there are too many young people without good education, and madrasas are taking them in.”

Over endless cups of tea, we nurtured new relationships with leaders from every Muslim sect — from hardline conservative clerics to liberal religious scholars.  Our work certainly did not end religious intolerance in Karachi, but we were able to humanize ourselves in the eyes of the religious leaders we met and lay a foundation for continued cooperation with Karachi’s religious community. Many of those with whom we met had never spoken to an American, and all seemed genuinely surprised and flattered by the attention. Every single one of them urged continued dialogue.


“The State Department’s current risk aversion at higher-threat posts obstructs the performance of the most basic functions of a diplomat abroad,” begins a recent report from the American Academy of Diplomacy. “Effective diplomacy to meet national interests requires a method to engage more broadly even in high-threat locations.”

A large body of academic research validates this claim. Hostility between people is fed by unfamiliarity and separation, while dialogue is proven to reduce animosity and promote more positive attitudes. Intergroup contact can short-circuit the pernicious attitudes that can form in which each side becomes unyielding, prejudiced, and begins to deny any validity to the other side’s narrative. These findings are directly applicable to the work of diplomats who are asked to face high levels of animosity in places like Pakistan. A Pew Research conducted before the protests called Pakistani views of the United States “grim,” calculating that 74% of Pakistanis viewed the United States as their enemy.

Thankfully, the protests in Karachi did not lead to the next Benghazi. No American lives were lost. But it’s as good a bet as any that Karachi will be the location for the next major security breach. It’s one of the most dangerous cities in the world, swarming with terrorist organizations, and brimming with anti-Americanism. But the question is not what can we do to avoid the next Benghazi but rather: How do we prioritize vital outreach knowing that the next Benghazi is always a possibility. At some point, there’s an inverse relationship between the height of our walls and the depth of understanding and trust we can build with the locals.

The political firestorm that accompanied Ambassador’s Stevens’ death infuriated many of my friends and colleagues in the Foreign Service. Instead of celebrating him as a hero, his name has been sullied by association to this tragedy. It is easy to criticize the decision making that led to the death of Americans on that day. Politics is what it is. But Ambassador Stevens was not debating the dangers of our engagement with the world from the sidelines. He was on the front lines working hard to achieve US objectives. Not for personal gain, but for his country. He gave his life for that work.

After hearing of his death, my Foreign Service colleagues, assigned throughout the world in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and Libya — the future Chris Stevenses — flooded social media with messages pledging to honor his life and sacrifice. The response from the field was very different from the one we heard from Washington which seemed to focus solely on the security failure. As one Foreign Service officer wrote, the new generation of diplomats are “less accepting of what it views as onerous security requirements, in terms of both technology and physical facilities.” Another senior diplomat notes, “The rise of risk aversion at the State Department has undermined U.S. diplomats’ ability to work effectively, with serious unintended consequences for national security,” emphasizing that “we have to be there.”

A plaque on the wall at the entrance of the chancery in Karachi lists the names of almost a dozen diplomats who had been killed while serving in Karachi, serving as a reminder to those who walk through those doors of the dangers diplomats face. But the message of the plaque is not to turn our backs and hide. It is a reminder of the importance of carrying on their legacy of engagement.

The protests were a defining moment in my young diplomatic career. The whiff of life-threatening danger helped crystallize in my mind the vital role of diplomacy in that troubled corner of South Asia and beyond. Achieving US interests will be impossible without building relationships across the political, religious and cultural spectrum. We need to open up new lines of communication with those who disagree with us, and empower voices of peace and tolerance. That is the job of today’s diplomat serving in dangerous places. Turning our backs, hoping problems go away, and then feigning surprise when  trouble once again turns up at our doorstep is not an option.

*Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities. 

Dan Spokojny is a former US diplomat. He is now the CEO of fp21, a think tank dedicated to transforming the processes and institutions of foreign policy. Dan is also a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Note from author: Reporting on the size, composition, and behavior of the protests was notoriously unreliable. I’ve done my best to reconstruct the situation as accurately as possible. Any errors are my own.

Dan Spokojny

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