It is rather amazing, actually disturbing, that in a period of time when foreign affairs is the single most important aspect of all politics in Pakistan, including in our domestic polity, Pakistan remains without a foreign minister.
It was not a surprise — given the nature of US-Pakistan relations and the role of the military in running Pakistan’s foreign policy — that US Senator John Kerry’s first meeting in Pakistan (late in the night, immediately on his arrival in Pakistan) was with the army chief.
The reasons for, or nature of, that meeting might not have changed even if we did have a full-time and full minister for foreign affairs in place, but at least protocol may have demanded a different decorum and therefore, sent out a different diplomatic signal; maybe even set a different diplomatic tone to begin the visit with.
With Raymond Davis, the Abbottabad operation, a Saudi diplomat being killed and everything else happening in the diplomatic world — from trade to the environment; it is not as if there would be a dearth of things for a foreign minister to do. Nor is there any dearth of aspirants — either within the PPP or its many coalition partners. There are plenty who would be willing to, and some who would be able to, do a good job on this tough assignment, even if they were to be appointed amidst a fast-moving round of musical chairs.
Although it clearly matters who the foreign minister is, right now, it matters less than actually having one, as long as it is someone who is given the ability to speak for, and to, the rest of the civilian government with confidence and with authority. If ever there was a need for a single point and voice within the civilian government apparatus, who can talk authoritatively about Pakistan’s foreign policy, this is that time. In the absence of one, our rudderless foreign policy seems all the more rudderless — a reinforcement of the reality, as well as the heightened perception — no one in Pakistan (at this point, not even the military), has a clue about what is happening, or should be happening, to our already tattered foreign relations.
That familiar sinking feeling of directionless drift that one has recently been having about Pakistan’s economic policy now seems to be also felt about our foreign policy. Just having a foreign minister may not be, in itself, sufficient to check this drift, but it is certainly a necessary first step.
Indeed, there is a junior minister of state in place — Hina Rabbani Khar. But I know little about her or her performance as a foreign minister. And, that, in fact, is the problem. If the government intends for her to, really, be the foreign minister, then we should be seeing, hearing and sensing much more of her, and, from her, on the substance of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Maybe, the right approach is for the government to give her that role and space.
But if she, or the government, are unwilling for her to play that role, then we need a full-time and full minister of foreign affairs. And, as soon as possible.
The timing is crucial, not only because of all the foreign policy challenges that the country is swimming in, but even more because of the unique opportunity that has been provided by recent events to wrest back at least some of the critical foreign policy issues from the military to the civilian leadership. This opportunity must not be missed.
Importantly, it needs to be availed in a way that changes the dynamics of where key foreign policy decisions are made, bringing critical functions back into the control of the civilian leadership, but without dangerously destabilising the state and the tenuous balances within its institutions. And that, to me, is the most important element in the case for why Pakistan desperately needs a foreign minister, needs one who is good and can bring the sagacity and balance needed for the job, and why we need one immediately.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2011.