Expectations from Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari

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Hassan Khan

Most additional foreign secretary-level officers have suffered great uncertainty from delayed posting decisions and are just marking time with no appetite for substantive work

After much trepidation, it appears, that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has taken up the challenging role as the new Foreign Minister of Pakistan. That is almost six decades after his illustrious grandfather became the foreign minister to begin a transformative political career in earnest. Credited with lending a new direction to Pakistan’s foreign policy, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made his mark for eternity during his years at Scheherazade. Does Bilawal have similar capacity and aspirations?
While it may be too early to form a definitive opinion, so far this is not evident by any changes that may have been brought about. A Foreign Office bruised and battered by the “cablegate scandal” on the one hand and a mediocre, non-imaginative leadership on the other stands demoralised, dishevelled and despondent with not much capacity for robust diplomacy in any direction.
Former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had kept an iron grip on the institution to use it to pursue his own political ambitions, in the process stifling it to the point that it lost all relevance in the national scheme of things other than being his handmaiden.
Since he allegedly put a high premium on servitude, blind loyalty and obsequiousness, he appointed a foreign secretary, and envoys in some key capitals, along these lines, leaving little room for initiative and dynamism.
If the new foreign minister is serious about reviving the Foreign Office as the vibrant institution that it used to be in bygone eras, he needs to act fast and decisively to bring about major changes of personnel and approach.
Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood, who has completed his three-year term, is set to retire in a few months. A new foreign secretary must be appointed soon. But not a “Baboo” type who would just play a second fiddle to the foreign minister. Rather, one with leadership abilities and fresh thinking could help the young foreign minister reinvigorate Pakistan’s foreign policy to reflect national aspirations and priorities.
Mahmood has been blamed by many, duly or unduly, of being indecisive, unimaginative and a weak voice.
Envoys postings and transfers, which should be undertaken as a routine exercise by selecting the most suitable officers for different capitals abroad at regular intervals, being no rocket science, had become a herculean task beyond the capacity of the Foreign Office’s administration.
Stay at the headquarters which normally used to be about two years for senior officers has become three or more, thus, resulting in huge disappointment and mental fatigue. Ambassadors posted in diplomatic missions, on the other hand, were being kept abroad for seven or more years instead of the stipulated six years stay.
Making and implementing a posting plan which should usually take a few months could not be even accomplished in a year by the current Foreign Office administration. Ironically, the Special Secretary (Administration), a grade 22 officer, has not been able to join his own assignment as Ambassador to Poland although the decision was made almost a year ago and all formalities have been completed for six months. A posting plan that should have been made a year ago is still languishing in the files.
As a consequence, most of the additional foreign secretary-level officers, the second-highest tier after the foreign secretary, have suffered great uncertainty from delayed posting decisions and are just marking time with no appetite for substantive work. The situation at the lower levels is not much different.
An additional secretary in the Foreign Office shared with me the perception prevalent in the Foreign Office that the foreign secretary has been deliberately delaying the ambassadorial posting plan because he wants a posting for himself first. With just a few months left to retire, he wants a contractual appointment that would be against the rules. It may be recalled that the last Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua did not take up any such assignment and retired.
The young foreign minister, who has available the services of a Minister of State for Foreign Affairs who remained a foreign minister herself, needs to act swiftly towards bringing about the key personnel changes because it is the first few weeks or months of tenure, which determine the tone and tenor of new leadership. Inaction in this formative period renders a change less meaningful and prone to be taken less seriously.
Once the personnel changes are made, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari could shift his attention to policy matters where there is much room for a new approach to replace the stale, bureaucratic bent of mind that has rendered Pakistan’s foreign policy archaic, anachronistic and out of sync with national aspirations. I will have more of that in a separate piece exclusively focusing on policies. In the meanwhile, it would be interesting to see what kind of start Bilawal will make and how far he will meet the high expectations many have from another Bhutto in the Foreign Office.