New Delhi: US Ambassador to Pakistan Donald Blome’s secret visits to the Gilgit Baltistan region and the Gwadar port this month have stoked controversy in the country, with political leaders questioning the envoy’s “suspicious” motives and accusing the West of neo-colonialism.
Blome went on a six-day visit to Gilgit Baltistan and Hunza Valley last week. However, the visit was kept unusually under wraps, with neither the US embassy in Pakistan nor the regional government announcing the visit. The envoy also secretly visited the China-funded Gwadar port in Balochistan province earlier this month, becoming the first US ambassador to visit the port in 17 years.
Gilgit Baltistan has been a disputed region between India and Pakistan since 1947, and between India and China since 1959. It is the only land route between Islamabad and Beijing, meeting at the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and is often considered the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Pakistan. The region, currently occupied by Pakistan — an occupation India considers as illegal — has special administrative provisions including its own Constitution that sets out its powers and their limits with respect to Pakistan.
Blome had visited Gilgit Baltistan (G-B) for three days last year as well. Throughout that visit, he had reportedly referred to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or PoK as ‘AJK’ (Azad Jammu and Kashmir). While India has yet to react to his latest visit, it had registered its protest with US authorities last year as New Delhi views the region as having been forcibly taken over by Pakistan in 1947.
After Blome’s latest visits, Kazim Mesum, opposition leader in the Gilgit Baltistan assembly, questioned the motivations behind them, as well as the “mysterious activities” of the envoy. “There is a set procedure for any country’s ambassador to visit the region,” he said, while calling Blome’s coming to Gilgit after visiting Gwadar “suspicious”.
Former Senate chairman and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Mian Raza Rabbani also called out the envoy’s visit, hinting at Western influence and interference into domestic affairs through visits to strategic regions as well as bailout packages.
“The financial imperialists first got their conditionalities accepted in various agreements that comprised Pakistan’s financial sovereignty. Now they treat Pakistan as part of the Raj and have started to dictate the political and constitutional arrangements,” Rabbani said.
During this visit, Blome met with numerous local representatives and government officials. Amid the uproar over the visit, the US Embassy issued a statement that read: “Gilgit and Hunza Valley are unique mountain and glacial ecosystems that feed the Indus River Valley. The region is particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts.” It also said that ambassador Blome’s trips were conducted in close contact with the Pakistan government.