Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My Foreign Service Years: the Washington tenure

Published in The Independent, January 25th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

My posting to our Embassy in Washington in June, 1990 was as a Political Counsellor was in a way like home coming for personal reasons. Of my six sisters, four lived at that time in Nashville, the home of country music. Apart from this personal angle of my posting to Washington, I found the tenure in world’s number one capital quite different from my two earlier postings to Canberra and New Delhi in a lot many ways.

Washington was those days as it is now, one of our bigger missions, somewhat the same size as the Embassy in New Delhi. It had all the attached wings as Commerce, Economic and Defense. My Ambassador upon arrival was Mr. Ataul Karim, a career diplomat of the 1955 batch of the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service. Ambassador Karim was then also concurrently accredited as the Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. In effect, it was the Alternative Representative Mr. AHG Mohiuddin who was in charge with Ambassador Karim just lending his name in an ornamental way. Very soon after my arrival, Mr. AHG Mohiuddin was made the Permanent Representative.

Ambassador Karim was very reserved, somewhat introverted. He looked serious all the time and gave the impression of being a difficult boss. Before my posting to Washington, I had not served with him either at the Headquarters or in the Mission. Therefore my first few days with him were uneasy from my side. But as I settled down in the post, I found him pleasant; very understanding and compassionate. I remember a telephone call from Dhaka after I had been in the post for a year that my father was in his death bed. It was a Sunday and I called him on the phone to seek his permission to see him at the Residence with an application to go to Dhaka on emergency leave. When I met him, he just asked the condition of my father and signed the application praying that I would be able to see my father for one last time.

Soon after I arrived in my post, events in Dhaka had turned tense with the political movement against General Ershad at its peak. At the Embassy, we had a motley group that wanted the General’s end to come as quickly as possible. In the group, there was Brigadier Sabihuddin Ahmed who was posted to Washington as a Minister and who had a heart transplant operation before I arrived I my post. There was Mr. Mahbubul Alam, the current editor of The Independent who was then the Press Minister and Humayun Kabir who later was the Ambassador in Washington. In the weeks and days leading to the President Ershad’s downfall, some of us used to spend endless hours discussing the downfall and taking bets on how long the regime would last. On refection now about those days, I can only say that those 10 years of military government were unbearable and we were just impatient to see him go. It must nevertheless be said that although in the Embassy we were anxious to see President Ershad go, to the hosts we represented the military Government to the best of our abilities because while abroad as diplomats, we cannot oppose the government without opposing the country. Our enthusiasm to see the downfall of President Ershad was however not matched by Ambassador Karim who had been given a two years extension and thus wanted the President to continue.

President Ershad’s commitment of troops for the US led first Gulf War had made him a firm favourite of the US Government. The Mission’s standing with the US State Department was also enhanced substantially after our commitment of troops. Before the Gulf War, the Ambassador’s normal contact at the State Department was at the level of the Deputy Assistant Secretary and only on special occasions, was he able to meet the Assistant Secretary. During the Gulf War, Ambassador Karim was able to meet the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs on request very easily.

The Gulf War aside, President Ershad was able to befriend important people in the Washington based Prayer Breakfast Group, a conservative group with deep links in the Republican Party. In the late 80s, the Government had appointed Mr. Bannerman as a lobbyist in Washington who before becoming a lobbyist was a staffer of Republican Senator Richard Lugar. It was largely his contribution that led to the contact of President Ershad with the Breakfast Group. This Group those days was led by a gentleman named Mr. Douglas Coe. I was present in a couple of meetings between Ambassador Karim and Mr. Coe at the office of the Prayer Breakfast Group in Virginia not far from our Embassy in Wisconsin Avenue. The meetings were in preparation of the visit that President Ershad took to the United States in October, 1990. Mr. Douglas Coe and his Group hosted President Ershad in Colorado on a weekend of golf and leisure.

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. When President Ershad fell and democracy was established in Bangladesh, the United States, the champion of democracy, was not happy with the change. The reason was its national interest, that precedes all else in the conduct of foreign relations. If ever Bangladesh had made the US happy, it was President Ershad’s decision to commit troops for the Gulf War that Bangladesh did before most nations who joined the US led coalition. The US that was still involved in the war was wary that a new administration in Bangladesh would reverse President Ershad’s decision.

Those days, I used to accompany Ambassador Karim to all his official meetings. I remember both at the State Department and in the Congress, Ambassador Karim was spared no harsh words in conveying the US’s displeasure with politics in Bangladesh. The Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia those days was Mrs. Tereshita Schaffer whose husband Mr. Howard Schaffer was the US Ambassador to Dhaka and was a close friend of President Ershad. Ambassador Karim was summoned quite a few times to the State Department where Mrs. Tereshita Shaffer delivered strong messages about politics in Bangladesh where the USA’s concern was clearly in favour of General Ershad. In the Congress too Ambassador Karim faced the same music where the sentiment was in favour of the military regime.

Mr. Abul Ahsan, at that time the Foreign Secretary, was named to succeed Ambassador Ataul Karim after the BNP took office in Bangladesh. That angered the latter who felt that he should have been allowed to complete the extension that was given to him by the Ershad Government. Nevertheless, it was quite a few months before Mr. Abul Ahsan replaced him. In the meantime, Mr. Saifur Rahman paid a visit to Washington during which he had called on Congressman Tony Hall. At that meeting, the Congressman made a few blunt remarks in favour of Mr. Ershad who was by then in jail. Mr. Saifur Rahman gave the Congressman an emotional briefing about how he was taken to jail and the torture to which he was subjected by President Ershad’s intelligence. At one stage, he suddenly lifted his trouser up to the knee to show an injury mark that intelligence forces of President Ershad had inflicted on him. After the meeting, I could not help congratulating the Minister at the way he cornered the Congressman who just dropped the subject of President Ershad after the Minister’s briefing.

In fact, soon after that meeting, Brigadier Sabihuddin who by then had left the Embassy came to my office and asked me to give him a draft of a letter from Congressman Hall to then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Within a few hours, Brigadier Sabihuddin was back in my office with the letter signed by the Congressman and addressed to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia where he congratulated her and offered her his support for enhancement of Bangladesh-US relations! Brigadier Sabihuddin was given the letter to personally carry it to the Prime Minister. I wondered how this was done. Later I learnt and Brigadier Sabihuddin corroborated the fact that in the USA, the staffers of Congressmen most often sign such letter with an electronic pen where more often than not, Congressmen are unaware or just kept informed of such letters as the one to Begum Khaleda Zia.

Ambassador Ataul Karim passed away late last year, lamented by those who knew him as one of our finest diplomats. Brigadier Sabihuddin Ahmed died in Washington two years ago. He was an amazing man whom I respected for his great courage and integrity.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government.

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