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Facing a Trial by Fire

RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE NEWSMAKERS : COLUMN ONE

Diplomacy: U.S. ambassador to Pakistan will need to draw on her 'fearless' nature to bolster her limited experience there.

October 29, 2001|RONE TEMPEST and RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Two anecdotes, both from her college days as a spirited student teacher in South America, reveal a lot about Wendy Chamberlin, America's ambassador in front-line Pakistan.

In the first, she jumped from the top of a steamboat into a fast-moving river in Brazil on a dare. Only later did she learn that the waters were home to flesh-eating piranhas.

In the second, she chased down a pickpocket in Peru. Only afterward, when the villain was in police custody, did she discover that he carried a knife.

Both episodes ended well, with the strong-swimming, fleet-footed future diplomat recognized and rewarded for her daring. But after the Sept. 11 attacks--which elevated the post of U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, filled by Chamberlin only a few weeks before, to one of the most sensitive diplomatic assignments in the world--they seem especially portentous.

Interviewed in her split-level residence inside the walled and heavily guarded U.S. compound here, Chamberlin, a 53-year-old divorced mother of two adolescent daughters, claims she has mellowed some since those early South American exploits.

"I still feel like I'm 23 years old," said the athletically built Chamberlin, who swam butterfly competitively at Northwestern University. "But I am a mother now, and I'm first a mother." These days, though, she is far from her daughters: Chyna, 14, and Jade, 12, who were sent back to the U.S. to stay with their father, a former diplomat, for security reasons.

Over the years, as a teacher and diplomat in Laos, Morocco, Zaire (now Congo) and Malaysia, Chamberlin said she has learned "not to act impulsively but to act strategically."

In Washington, where she served with the National Security Council under President George Bush, father of her current boss, she developed expertise in combating international drug trafficking and in counter-terrorism. As ambassador to Laos from 1996 to 1999, she earned a reputation as someone who could deal effectively with the Communist military dictators who run that country. Longtime friends describe Chamberlin as "fearless."

"She's an American woman and a strong one; a little bit in your face, for sure, but very well spoken and empathetic," said Karen Howell, a middle school teacher in Greenwich, Conn., and one of Chamberlin's companions during her 1970 summer in South America.

In the months ahead, Chamberlin will need to draw on all those traits to compensate for her limited on-the-ground experience in this extremely volatile region, with its maze of religious, tribal and ethnic issues.

Chamberlin's previous international work on drugs and terrorism often involved Pakistan and Afghanistan. She served briefly in Washington as a special assistant on South Asia in the State Department's Office of Political Affairs. But until she arrived here Aug. 13, she had made only two trips to Pakistan.

"I admit to daydreaming of the day that I could return to serve in such a fascinating country," Chamberlin said at her Senate confirmation hearing in June, "but I never dreamed it would be in the capacity of ambassador, nor that it would be during a period of such daunting problems."

Having been vaulted into prominence by the events of Sept. 11, Chamberlin found that her first crucial assignment was to quickly win support for the coalition against terrorism from the general who rules Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf.

Despite considerable domestic political risk, Musharraf decisively committed his nation to the U.S. effort on Sept. 13 at a meeting with Chamberlin, during which she also presented her credentials as the new American ambassador. Musharraf offered to share intelligence, allow the use of Pakistani airspace and provide air bases for logistical operations. Chamberlin was able to tell reporters waiting outside the president's office that Musharraf was on board.

Since then, Chamberlin has been charged with overseeing the billions of dollars in economic incentives designed to keep the Musharraf regime stable in the face of challenges from Islamic militants and others opposed to the U.S. military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. These include direct foreign aid, reimbursement for the costs of Pakistan's participation in the coalition and restructuring of the country's $3-billion debt to the United States.

Finally--and Chamberlin sees this as her most important mission--she wants to rescue and rehabilitate Afghanistan from its fallen state after more than 20 years of conflict and five years of fundamentalist theocratic rule.

"The next phase is going to be nation-building in Afghanistan," she said during the interview. "I can envision a huge and critically important effort in Afghanistan to assure the Afghans that they can build a political process there that will lead to a government and then economic reconstruction and development."

U.S. Policy Reversed Since Her Confirmation

All this reflects an about-face in U.S. policy.

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