This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.


I was generally browsing the newspapers kept in the lobby of The Economist, while waiting to be interviewed, when I caught a news item about how Iran is building a concrete wall to fence off Pakistan. And then, while returning from the interview, I got to ruminate about some strange coincidences and angles on this wall business with respect to Pakistan. If one connects some disparate recent occurrences and indications, one could argue that Pakistan is slowly getting trapped, surrounded, quarantined or perhaps the noose is drawing tighter. I wrote before about how walls can be good for security and have become fashionable but this seems to be a bit more than just a wall. Or perhaps I am reading too much into it, but here goes my thinking, you decide!


The Iranians got mighty miffed with Pakistan since people from over the border, allegedly, nipped over and detonated a bomb in the Iranian city of Zahidan, killing thirteen people. That border is a bad one; it is full of smugglers, druggies, terrorists, various jihadis, and other nefarious chaps. Typical badlands! Iran has lost quite a lot of policemen and soldiers in that area down the years. I think this last episode was the last straw that broke the Iranian camel's back. So, they have now decided to build a 700 kilometres wall  to keep the poxy gits, who are blowing up the poor Iranians, out. There are even photographs of this wall available on the net, a strange blue-coloured wall, but there you go. Moving across, the NATO forces have their UAVs, reconnaissance planes, ELINT vehicles and satellites all peering beadily across the Afghan Pakistani Border. Nothing crosses the border without something or someone noticing it. That border is one of the most peered at borders - all to stop the assorted jihadis from crossing into Afghanistan. So, most of the western and northwestern part is already controlled, scanned, checked, validated, stamped, and walled off!


There is a comparatively smaller stretch of frontier between China and Pakistan on the north eastern side of Pakistan. All the indications are that it is very difficult to pass, because of the very tough geography, and the few warm weather passes. The Karakorum Highway frontier pass is extremely tightly controlled. You see, the Uighur rebels in the Xinjiang province of China seem to be getting most of their sustenance from Pakistan, so the Chinese are very careful about whom they let in and are even more careful about the checks. Then you have the long western Indian frontier which is controlled already. It is one of the most heavily defended borders in the world. The only other border I think of is the DMZ between North and South Korea. It is fenced, mined, bristling with tank traps, barbed wire, patrols, you name it, eyeball-to-eyeball time, and this time, it is done by the Indians who don't want any of the Pakistanis or jihadis to nip across the border for nefarious purposes.


That leaves the seaward side on the Arabian Sea, which is pretty well covered by the U.S. Navy and every other navy that you can think of. That area of the sea has naval ships, tanker traffic, etc. you name it. It is very difficult to sneak out of that side. But even if you have done that, the U.S. customs service and homeland security check almost every container and cargo which originates or touches any Pakistani port. Still, I suppose you can nip over to Oman on your dhow, but make sure you have your running lights up and running otherwise one of those VLCCs will run you over.


So what? You might ask, one can fly out of the country! Well, it is not that easy anymore, I am afraid. From all I have read on the various letters to the editors of Pakistani newspapers, and from talks I had with my Pakistani friends and British friends / acquaintances, who travel on the green passport, they do get the go-over on every emigration/immigration desk. So if you are traveling out of or into Pakistan with a Pakistani passport, then expect to be poked, prodded, questioned and checked inside out. And it's not just the green passport. Even if you have a British passport, if you are going to or coming out of Pakistan, expect to be checked and await an MI5 officer who will be sniffing around you. Look at the latest arrests and jihadis with bombs in the U.K.; some or other connection to Pakistan is always there. On the flip side, again on anecdotal evidence, getting a visa to get out of Pakistan, if you are a Pakistani citizen, is getting very difficult. Embassies are trained to look at your applications with great big beady eyes! Even for business visas.



Mind you, that's if you manage to get a Pakistan International Airlines plane! Apparently, the European Union bureaucrats have told Pakistan not to bother flying three quarters of their planes into anywhere near any European airport, because of the poor maintenance record of PIA . It's anecdotal evidence, but at least in Manchester Airport, anytime a Pakistani aircraft lands, it is checked with closer than usual scrutiny for substances carried above and beyond the call of aviation duty.


Then you usually have somebody or other from all over the world usually wagging their fingers at Pakistan. Usually it's the Americans, the latest being Vice President Cheney, who was on the finger-wagging trip. Every other week or so, an American general, ambassador, congressman, senator, bureaucrat, or somebody else will toddle over and poke the Pakistanis to do more about the Taliban and other assorted jihadi's. And all this is not even mentioning the official U.S. sanctions which are still applied on Pakistan. Others who are further away are bit more discreet, but generally, Pakistan's neighbours do go about the finger-wagging and furrowed brow exercise quite frequently. Heck, even the Saudi's check the Pakistani Hajj pilgrims closely for drug trafficking and visa irregularities. Take a close look at this vivid example. Even marriages are not immune. If you want to marry a Pakistani, and you are a citizen of another country, be prepared for a spot of bother about an official checking your spouse out.


Economically, Pakistan is looking a bit better, but still Foreign Direct Investment is meagre, so there's that sort of mental block/wall as well. The growth which Pakistan has seen is mostly because the expatriate Pakistani's are pulling their assets back from the world and sticking it into assets in Pakistan to avoid scrutiny. Pakistan is among the top seven 2007 politically risky countries according to the Eurasia Group and FDI magazine. Money transfers from Pakistan are scrutinised very closely, and the hawala system is now under tremendous pressure. Exports to Pakistan get checked that bit better, especially on dual use equipment! After Pakistani nuclear hero Abdul Qader Khan drove a coach and buggy through the nuclear non-proliferation scheme, exports and imports to and from Pakistan are checked and rechecked, or in some cases, not as the case might be. Pakistani banks and firms go through an extra level of scrutiny compare to other countries, but mind you, so do Nigerians! If you are wishing to travel to Pakistan, then you need to get extra approvals from your boss, the corporate security chief, the local embassy, etc. etc.


So, once I put these various bits and bobs together, I do get the strong feeling that Pakistan is definitely under the microscope, if not under quarantine. Not a good feeling to have, I am afraid. It reminds me of the old eighteenth century maps, just in reverse. In those maps, where there were dangers, pirates or just simply unknown territories, you would see notations like, "be careful as there be uglies/devils/pirates there". Seems like slowly the world is turning its back on this country by raising all forms of overt or covert walls and raising a big sign on the barred gate, "be careful as there be uglies there."



All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!