American Consulate General Karachi | The RCO

Late October 1977

Karachi-Gen Zia
photo by tribune.com.pk

When General Zia al-Huq had recently deposed Ali Bhutto’s liberal government during a military coup d’état he declared that Pakistan would return to traditional conservative Sunni Muslim values.

The transfer of power did not hinder the operations of Am Consul Karachi’s Regional Communications Office. Because the RCO’s mission was to support the other forty-some embassies and consulates in the region the new Pakistani regime was more or less an inconvenience.

The new leader had banned the casino under construction at Clifton Beach during the Ali Bhutto reign. The illegal consumption of alcohol had been strictly enforced for the Pakistanis.

The Pakistani leader wore a fine mustache, though.

Crabbing on Karachi Bay

I figured crabbing must be one of those adventures that fit in the Con Gen’s category of “more than meets the eye,” in reference to Karachi. Who knows, maybe General Zia would join us?

On Friday (our Saturday in the US) RCO Roberson invited everyone in the Regional Communications Office and their spouses to go crabbing on Karachi Bay. Al and I joined the group of twelve (he didn’t bring his Thai girlfriend).

It was a good opportunity to meet and greet. Bob’s wife, an ex-Pan Am stewardess, herded everyone to the pier and provided rudimentary instruction on the simple task of crabbing. Once on the boat she instructed everyone with the use of the life jacket… (well, not really). Crabbing involved the simple task of baiting a hook on monofilament fishing line and dropping it in the water.

Bob the red-faced Skipper, already looked two sheets to the wind. He and Joe toted an ice chest full of beer on the boat. We were remote from the public.

The crabbing soon became secondary as the beer tops popped and the war stories flowed, beginning with Bob, who began to flood his paragraphs with “W’s.” Later, the telephone and crypto team leaders, Joe and Ulysses added their anecdotes. Al didn’t have much to say. For the sake of the radio section I laid out my “chili and crackers” experience at the Con Gen’s luncheon (after everyone had partaken in a few beers). It got some laughs.

That evening I entered my third Foreign Service lesson into my personal journal: Always wear sun tan lotion while crabbing at Karachi Bay and don’t go crabbing at Karachi Bay anymore.

I had acquired one heck of sunburn. My servant Basheer provided me a Pakistani remedy. The printing on the bottle was all in Urdu. “Sahib,” he said to me, head swiveling, “My mother used this on all her children.”

“Gosh Basheer, how many children did you have in your family?”

His body straightened into attention. With lifted jaw and brazened eyes, he declared, “It was only myself, Sahib.”

With that he handed me the bottle and went in the kitchen to prepare dinner.

The First Day on the Job

I had been informed by SECSTATE that the weekend here was Saturday and Sunday, same as the U.S. But it turned out that it was Friday and Saturday. I assumed this was per General Zia’s directive.

Another (sobering) lesson I had learned since arriving in Karachi less than forty-eight hours ago was that Foreign Service Officers must respect the local customs, religion, and ideologies. I was a guest of General Zia al-Huq.

On Sunday (the US Monday) Al had offered to give me a ride to work (until my car arrived by ship). He carefully proceeded up the bridge amidst morning traffic. When I related the incident atop the Clifton Bridge he shook his head while holding an amused, but confounded, expression. I would witness that look many times over the next year and a half before Al transferred back to SECSTATE and resigned from the Foreign Service.

We got coffee and sat down on stools at the radio bench. I gazed around at the chaos while Al reviewed the radio program. To me there had to be organization before anything could get done. Al admitted that he didn’t have time to take care of everything. RCO “Bob” had been on his case recently.

Al looked at me like I was the Spanish Inquisitor and said, “With Bob, it’s all about budget. It’s more important to him than anything, except maybe his membership at the Karachi Officer’s Club.”

My cohort must have had run-in’s with Bob. I said, “How can we get the job done and keep Bob happy?”

“Stay within our budget. When you go on your field trips the CRO’s will ask for the pie in the sky. You’ve got to analyze the situation and recommend only what they need. I’ll show you what we’re budgeted for later this week.”

“Thanks Al, that’s good advice.”

I thought for a moment and added, “Why don’t we make a working priority list of all our missions and add the budgeting information along with forecasts? I sent you a message of the latest threat assessments from S.Y. (State Department Security).”

“Yeah, I got your message. Thanks. We can compile a report and info R.P.R. with a copy.”

“Who?”

“R.P.R., Robert P Roberson.”

I laughed. Al and I had the opportunity to make RCO/Radio Karachi into a first class support facility and do some good for the missions in the Middle East and South Asia. We had control of the forty-some missions in the region that had been screaming for radio help (else why would OC/PE have gotten me over here in such a rush?).

I suspected Al had been so ensconced in all the telegraphic traffic and the overload of radio equipment shipped in by diplomatic pouch for repair that he had lost vision of the big picture. We continued to discuss it in a casual way. He told me that Am Embassy Beirut was a major sore spot with Bob. The ambassador there lived up on a hill above the embassy. He needed some type of secure voice radio. I would contact Norm Bates back at SECSTATE about secure voice radios.

The radio shop needed cleaning up and organizing. When five o’clock rolled around we had a plan to bring old clothes tomorrow. Al told me point blank that he preferred as little travel as possible because his Thai girlfriend got lonely during his absence. This worked fine for me. I’d take up the travel slack after we finished straightening up the radio shop. On our way out the door he said he had some beer in his Clifton apartment refrigerator and that he had told his servant to put a third serving at the table this evening.

Hey, I’ve never turned down a free meal.

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