02/04/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
Wendy Chamberlin has been in tight spots before. She did a tour for the State Department in Laos at a time when the Asian nation still viewed the U.S. as the imperialist aggressor that had attacked Vietnam. But her diplomatic skills are being put to the test as never before: She was named ambassador to Pakistan by President Bush three months before the Sept. 11 attacks that led to the war in Afghanistan. And now, as tensions rise almost daily between Pakistan and its neighbor India, both of which have nuclear weapons, she is working to help avoid what could be a regional catastrophe. "I took this job," says Chamberlin, 53, "because I knew it would be an enormous challenge."
No question it will be. Even before Sept. 11, Chamberlin's task looked difficult. After Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, the U.S. placed severe economic sanctions on the country—measures that got even tougher after a 1999 military coup. The attacks on New York City and the Pentagon only made Chamberlin's job more complex. She saw the plane strike the second "World Trade Center tower on TV at the Islamabad embassy, where she and daughters Chynna, 14, and Jade, 12, had arrived four weeks earlier. "Instantly, we knew where this was going," Chamberlin says—to protracted war.
Within days she had brokered a deal lifting all sanctions and offering Pakistan $1 billion in U.S. aid in exchange for its cooperation in the fight against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. She also quickly forged a close working relationship with Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf, who had previously backed the Taliban. And that may be very useful as she attempts to cool the current hostilities. Until that crisis is resolved, Chamberlin says, she will be "the eyes and ears" of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Fortunately, says Edward Djerejian, once her State Department boss, "she has an excellent ability to manage fast-moving events."
Throughout it all Chamberlin has managed to influence people while also making friends. Pakistani newspapers, which refer to her simply as Wendy, gave prominent play to her decision to honor the Muslim holy month of Ramadan by joining in the 30-day dawn-to-dusk fast. "I like what it has done for me mentally and spiritually," says Chamberlin, an Episcopalian. "These things resonate very well," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, an Islamabad political science professor. "It shows deep feeling."
Chamberlin acquired her ability to adapt as a military brat, the second of three children of Marine colonel William and his homemaker wife, Beverly (both deceased). Born in Bethesda, Md., she moved frequently with her family to such places as Hawaii, California, and Falls Church, Va., where she graduated from George C. Marshall High School. "She was a tomboy," says brother William, 51, a colonel in the Army medical corps who recalls Wendy's leaping off 50-ft. towers at California's Camp Pendleton into a swimming pool. "She was fearless." (Brother Barry, 61, is a retired IBM executive.)
As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, where she swam varsity butterfly, Chamberlin planned to become a teacher. But after earning a master's in education and then volunteering for two years at a Laos teachers college, she joined the foreign service. "I enjoyed working overseas, and service to my country is what drives me," says Chamberlin, who worked in Laos and Zaire before taking a series of State Department jobs in Washington, D.C. After she briefed senior foreign-service officer John Houston Hawes about Israel over a 1984 lunch, they began dating and married two years later. In 1993 the couple and their girls moved to Malaysia, where Chamberlin was posted, but they divorced in 1998, after she had been named ambassador to Laos. The split proved difficult for the girls, whose father returned to D.C, but they remained with Chamberlin. Says nephew Brett Chamberlin, 21: "They have a best-friend-type relationship."
Chamberlin had returned to Washington when she got the call asking if she would consider the post in Pakistan. She'd visited there just twice, but her experience in crisis management made her an attractive candidate, and she agreed—"No embassy offered more scope for resolving issues that are important to the U.S."
Although initially she had no qualms about bringing her daughters, in mid-September they returned to the U.S. Chamberlin speaks to them daily but is tightly focused on the standoff between Pakistan and India—so pressing that Secretary of State Colin Powell visited in mid-January, and just the sort of tough assignment she relishes. "This is what I do," she says. "This is who I am."
Eileen Finan in Islamabad, Nina Biddle in London and Fran Brennan in Washington, D.C.