ISLAMABAD: Finally, Pakistan has a full-time foreign minister in over four years. The crucial ministry was given to Khawaja Asif in the new federal cabinet, led by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, which took oath on Friday.
The foreign minister’s portfolio was retained by the deposed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, as he ran affairs of the ministry through his adviser Sartaj Aziz since he had come into power in May 2013.
The absence of a full-fledged foreign minister was a subject of debate and criticism in and outside parliament given the enormity of the challenges faced by the country on the foreign policy front. Now critics and opposition have their wish fulfilled.
However, the choice for the crucial foreign minister’s post had ignited an instant debate on social media with some questioning if Asif was a suitable candidate given his reputation of being outspoken and a military’s critic.
Having served as minister for defence and water & power under the Sharif government, Asif is known for hard-hitting statements on civil-military ties. He had in the past publically questioned the role of military in political affairs.
During the 2014 sit-in by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Sharif was believed to have been persuaded by then military leadership to sideline Asif. Sharif, however, resisted the pressure, though Asif had remained conspicuous by his absence in key civil-military huddles in the following months.
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Unlike the ceremonial role he had in the defence ministry, as foreign ministry, Asif is required to consult and talk to key stakeholders, including the intelligence apparatus and military authorities. That is why the decision to hand him the foreign ministry has raised many eyebrows.
One interpretation of the decision is that the deposed prime minister wanted to have his trusted aide on a position where civil and military authorities often clashed in the past due to divergent views.
Independent observers believe Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is a soft-spoken person who may not be able to tackle state institutions if needed. The shake-up in the cabinet is an indication that things may not be so smooth during the remaining tenure of the PML-N government.
Institutional harmony is seen as a key, especially on the foreign policy front where Pakistan has to tackle a number of challenges, including hostile neighbours — India and Afghanistan — and more importantly the possible fallout of the new US strategy for South Asia.
The challenges are ‘humongous’, admitted a senior foreign ministry official, requesting anonymity. That was the reason why the first meeting chaired by the new prime minister was on foreign policy, he added.
Also minutes after the cabinet ministers took oath at the presidency, the newly-appointed foreign minister, Khawaja Asif, could be seen chatting with Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, suggesting that the minister had his hands full.
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But his immediate task is certainly to establish a smooth working relationship with the security establishment, which has a major input on foreign policy matters, remarked a Foreign Office source.
Minister of State for Information Marriyum Aurangzeb defended the appointment of Asif as foreign minister. "He will be an impactful foreign minister and follow the vision of the prime minister," she said of Asif while talking to a private news channel.