I ran into the ISI, Pakistan’s notorious intelligence services, while looking for an Afghan visa in Pakistan. Pakistan is not a police state, like Syria or Iran, so it’s not normal to run into an ISI agent.
The visa section of the Afghan consulate looked like a converted chowkidar’s (guard’s) hut, attached to the boundary wall of the consulate. It was on a dusty back lane in a residential area. And it wasn’t that easy to find, considering all the published addresses and phone numbers were wrong.
The first time I went to the consulate—dark and un-air conditioned—I watched a fatherly consular officer taking thumbprints and congratulating young Afghan men on their new Afghan passports. They looked like refugees working as laborers in Pakistan. I was a bit amazed. Afghanistan is often related to Pakistan, but these people spoke, acted, and looked completely different. The fact that I had never before noticed Afghans in Pakistan reminded me how invisible and impoverished Pakistan’s almost 2 million Afghan refugees are.
I looked a little out of place, with my wedge heels, big sunglasses, and U.S. passport. Most of all, I was a woman on my own.
The visa officer told me what I needed to apply for a visa and I returned on the second day to submit my application. When I walked outside, my driver was talking to someone, which was normal. But when I got in the car, he didn’t go away.
“Is she from Pakistan?” he asked my driver at his window. He looked like any man off the street, thin, dark, and wearing a dirty shalwar kameez. “Why does she want to go to Afghanistan?”
“Who is he?” I was asking my driver at the same time. “Why is he asking these questions? Why aren’t we leaving?”
My driver was giving us both vague answers, so I tried to get the man to talk to me directly. It took a few attempts. I guess he was trying to be respectful. Finally, he came around to my window.
“My friend wants to build a school in Afghanistan,” I explained, “I’m a student at Harvard.”
That probably made no sense to him, so he asked for all of my contact information. I wasn’t eager to give all that up to a dirty man on the street, but I took a bet that he didn’t have email or international calling and gave him my Harvard Kennedy School business card. He was instantly satisfied and we pulled away.
“Who was that??” I asked my driver in a dozen different ways. I didn’t get any clear answers, only that he had something to do with the consulate.
I went back the next day to pick up my visa. When I left, my driver was talking to the same man, but this time he was wearing nice pants and a clean shirt.
He greeted me like an old friend, apologizing profusely. “Your driver scolded me for scaring you yesterday. I should have showed you my badge.”
He pulled out an ISI identification card. On the back it said something like: This man has permission to enter and search anything he asks for. An unlimited warrant!
He then went on for a few minutes as I tried to get in the car, “The work you are doing is wonderful. You are studying very important things. More of our young people should be doing such things. We need more people like you.” He sounded like a proud relative.
Thank god I had my business card, I thought. One of his higher-ups must have recognized my school.
At first I thought the ISI officer was suspicious of me as an American going to Afghanistan. That would be difficult to get out of, if he thought I had other purposes and was making up our intention to build a school. But then I realized he was probably on the lookout for Pakistanis trying to go to Afghanistan. That made more sense, and I was even a bit impressed that the Pakistanis would put so much effort into monitoring the movement of their own (often problematic) nationals into Afghanistan.