In Pakistan, no one seems to realise the seminal importance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the accruing high cost of neglect. The interior, defence and commerce ministers have issued more statements on foreign relations issues than the combined statements of both the adviser and the special assistant to the prime minister on foreign affairs in the past three years.
People in the know hold the leadership of the ministry responsible for this reprehensible malaise by focusing on peripheral issues like protocol, presentations and networking, rather than promoting fresh thinking and strategising how to create space for Pakistan in the evolving global configuration and shifting alliances. No wonder, the foreign ministry has come under severe criticism.
Our permanent representative to the UN hailed the predictable response from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to PM Nawaz Sharif’s letter about human rights violations in IOK as a diplomatic triumph. What Ban Ki-moon did was no different from what he has been saying to Pakistan whenever his attention has been drawn to Indian oppression in IHK. He has simply offered his good offices, should both sides request it, to facilitate dialogue in order to achieve a negotiated settlement.
Now, we have another gaffe involving the alleged US government annoyance over a tweet by our top diplomat in Washington. He may even get blamed for the India-US agreement signed during the recent John Kerry Bharat yatra.
The Foreign Office has always been a soft target for the media and the government whenever something goes wrong with Pakistan’s outreach to the global community.
The issue is that, as laid down in the Rules of Business, the secretary of the ministry is the administrative head and is chiefly responsible for policy formulation and subsequent execution of the approved policy. In this context, and also when the government is in the process of selecting a new foreign secretary, it is pertinent to review the leadership performance of the incumbent secretary.
He has not been able to respond adequately to challenges confronting Pakistan. The foreign secretary, by virtue of his office, cannot both control and foresee foreign events; he is justly expected to safeguard at least national interests by being in the driving seat.
In a world transformed by globalisation and challenged by terrorism, relations with our immediate neighbours, the Kashmir dispute and the need for regional peace are the areas where foreign policy decisions undertaken by Foreign Secretary Aizaz Choudhry deserves both criticism and appreciation.
The Kashmir dispute: the soreign Secretary helped redefine the decade-old policy on Kashmir in such a way that India, which had always shown willingness to discuss the Kashmir dispute as part of talks, feels emboldened to say that from now on it will discuss only the vacation of Azad Kashmir. Over the years, Pakistan has emphasised the need for a settlement of the Kashmir issue under the UNSC resolutions, but for no valid reasons it changed its stance at Ufa. Terrorism was singled out as the key to build tension-free relations with India.
Who is responsible for this strategic blunder? Incidentally, the foreign secretary defended the policy shift in internal meetings of the ministry. Pakistan should have stuck to its stance of seeking a peaceful resolution of Kashmir. India carried out a media putsch, claiming that Kashmir was not discussed at all at Ufa and that the nomination of Ajit Doval as interlocutor was intended to keep the bilateral focus solely on terrorism. Sartaj Aziz had to issue a public statement explaining that Pakistan’s core interests had not been compromised and that the phrase “all outstanding issues” included Kashmir.
The foreign secretary also negotiated a statement where Islamabad assumed unilateral responsibility of the early conclusion of the Mumbai trial without seeking additional evidence as asked in the past. Again amidst very hostile statements by India, he invited his counterpart to talks on Kashmir. The impression was that Pakistan was desperate and preferred to pacify domestic lobby by engaging India instead of exposing Indian oppression against Kashmiris.
Better sense ultimately prevailed and under his advice the government decided to send envoys abroad to highlight Indian barbarity.
Afghanistan: The initial period of Ashraf Ghani’s presidency offered a real opportunity to Pakistan which was tired of Karzai’s hostility and double speak. Instead of rebuilding and fortifying normal diplomatic channels, Afghanistan was allowed to open a direct link with our military. The misstep lent strength to speculations in India, Iran, Saudi Arabia that real power lies not in Islamabad. It is rather unorthodox for a president of another country to telephone the army chief of another country instead of first talking to the head of government. The foreign secretary, however, cannot be faulted for the continued mutual mistrust between the two countries. He deserves appreciation for resilience in defending the Pak-Afghan border management mechanism.
United States: No doubt, the foreign secretary has very little role in our relations with the US. While it is difficult to change the transactional nature of our relation with US, there is a possibility of better managing our outreach to decision-makers in Washington. Though the soreign Secretary had visited Washington for talks, he chose not to interact with the foreign media. The pace of deterioration in Pak-US relations has been faster than usual in the last three years.
Human Rights Council Election: For the first time in its history, Pakistan in 2015 failed to win a re-election to the top UN human rights body, garnering just 105 votes in the 193-member General Assembly. Pakistan’s current term at the council is set to expire on December 31 and it was seeking re-election to the 47-member Human Rights Council. At UN stations, our missions have failed to rise above the current.
Russian Federation: Two years ago, the ministry was jubilant over starting a new era in Russia-Pakistan relations. Lately, there was renewed talk of Vladimir Putin visiting Islamabad after Russia agreed to invest in the $2 billion North-South gas pipeline project for carrying LNG from Karachi to Lahore. But Pakistan failed to provide the requisite substance as Moscow believes that there are still not enough reasons to justify Russian President Putin’s visit to Islamabad.
Public diplomacy: The foreign secretary was expected to reach out to the foreign media, especially during visits abroad. Apparently, he addressed Pakistani media abroad and never appeared on any international TV networks like BBC, CNN or RT.
Management issues: For the first time, all three top persons are often seen visiting other countries at the same time, leaving the headquarters rudderless. This violates SOPs, which can only be exempted in case of an emergency.
Unknown to the public is the extent to which the ministry has conceded, maybe reluctantly, its power to post its diplomatic staff in so-called sensitive missions. For ambassadors, the foreign ministry can recommend names but the secretary to the prime minister in his capacity as the chairman of a four-member committee takes the final decision. This is happening for the first time.
Optically, the ministry is very busy. The schedule of meetings and visits at all levels remain heavy. What we read in the media is that Pakistani workers are still stuck in Saudi Arabia, our exports are falling and on terrorism Pakistan is being blamed more than before as part of the problem. On the positive side, the ministry was able to work with China and Turkey to deny India NSG membership despite American lobbying. Another important development where the ministry gave a sane advice was the maintenance of its classic neutrality in the Middle East conflicts
New steps: The replacement of the foreign secretary is a big challenge for the government. While selecting any officers, the government must keep in mind that whosoever is appointed they should have the capacity and resilience to respond to the fast-changing regional and global environment. Pakistan cannot afford to fight 21st century changes with fossilised strategies.
We may deny that our country is isolated. This isolation will get excruciating if the government fails to appoint a person who understands the art of relating Pakistan to our foreign friends and neighbours. The military can help the new foreign secretary redefine balance among different stakeholders while framing new foreign policy initiatives.
Our capable foreign service has people who can ably do the job. After all, our star diplomats were groomed and polished by the same ministry. The current talent at the ministry can stand up to the myriad challenges confronting Pakistan under an inspiring team leader, not an arrogant babu.
The writer is a former ambassador. Email: mian.sanagmail.com