Thursday, September 5, 2013

Pakistan’s experiment in foreign policy management

 2nd September, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

Nawaz Sharif started his third term as Prime Minister of Pakistan holding on to the portfolio of Foreign Minister. This is not unusual. In countries such as those in South Asia, a new Prime Minister has been known to hold on to important portfolios when s/he is not sure about the person to choose and is in the process of sorting this out. The measure of the prime minister holding such an important portfolio is as always a temporary measure till the person he is seeking has been found.

Thus when Nawaz Sharif took over the Foreign Ministry portfolio, many thought it would be an interim measure and a new foreign minister would soon be appointed. That did not happen. Instead, the prime minister appointed two individuals to assist him with his Foreign Ministry portfolio. One of them is former Foreign Minister in his second term as Prime Minister (1998-1999) Sartaz Aziz who has been appointed his Foreign Affairs and Security Adviser with the rank of a Federal Minister. The Prime Minister then appointed a career diplomat Tariq Fatemi as his Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs. He gave him the status of a State Minister, a rung below Sartaz Aziz.

The arrangement is a strange one. The reason for such a strange arrangement with the critical portfolio of foreign affairs is a political wonder for many in Pakistan and abroad because it is not exactly clear how the foreign affairs turf would be divided and distributed between the two for an effective way of handling the country’s critically important foreign relations. With two major foreign policy issues facing the country that demand the best professional handling the country can offer, namely peace talks with India that the latter has dismissed due to tensions on line of control and relations with Washington, the strange way that the prime minister has arranged his foreign policy team is baffling.

Sartaz Aziz sits in the prime minister’s office. Tariq Fatemi sits in the Foreign Ministry. Thus while the former has the eyes and ears of the prime minister, the latter has the entire Foreign Service cadre at his disposal having been one of them. The arrangement becomes more complicated as the two are not exactly eager to work together as a team. The turf war has already started between the two and surfaced with the visit of the German Foreign Minister to Islamabad soon after the new government assumed office where even a day before the visit, the Foreign Ministry was unaware of the details leading the media to ask a rhetorical question: “Would the real Foreign Minister please stand up?”

Sartaz Aziz also has the advantage of his political connections, being a senior member of the ruling PML-N. Nevertheless, Tariq Fatmi too has his personal closeness with the prime minister. During his last term, Nawaz Sharif had named him as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Washington, a post he was unable to join even after arriving in the US capital because meanwhile Nawaz Sharif had lost power to General Pervez Moshraff’s military coup in 1999. Tariq Fatmi is a career diplomat who joined the Pakistan Foreign Service on East Pakistan quota in 1969. He was able to establish himself as one of the country’s ablest diplomats, a career that was launched after he had joined the post of Director in the office of Foreign Minister Sahibzada Yakub Khan.

The fight between the two could also affect Pakistan’s handling of relations with USA, particularly its response to the drones, which is also a domestic issue that unites Pakistanis across political divides. On Washington, the two carry a difference of opinion from the past. In 1998, during the discussions on CTBT, as Foreign Minister Sartaz Aziz had been soft on toeing Washington’s views. Tariq Fatemi who was then a senior Foreign Ministry official opposed the foreign minister and had been successful in convincing the prime minister against signing the CTBT. That tussle, observers in Islamabad feel, has not been forgotten and likely to surface if the prime minister does not resolve the strange way he has set up his foreign policy management team.

Tariq Fatmi, in the decade has been away from the centre of foreign policy management, has been a columnist for the newspapers where his writings have reflected a moderate anti-Washington bias. Despite there being a strong anti-USA sentiment running across the country, Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff must pursue a foreign policy line soft on the US. Sartaz Aziz would fit well in fulfilling Pakistan’s compulsion on toeing a soft line on USA, as he is known to pro-USA and respected in Washington. Perhaps, he could pursue with USA the official contacts leaving the prime minister free to deal with the public on their anti-USA sentiments. One has to watch how Tariq Fatemi, with the Foreign Ministry behind him, fits into this foreign policy management.

Common sense however dictates that Pakistan must find a way out from the potential problems that are there in the dichotomy that the third administration of Nawaz Shariff has created in foreign policy management. The argument has been advanced from the prime minister’s side that he would need to have full control of the important portfolio of foreign affairs in terms of policy while allowing officials like Sartaz Aziz and Tariq Fatemi handle day to day matters of foreign relations. This explanation notwithstanding, foreign policy analysts in Pakistan are deeply worried that the country’s interests would suffer because the two chosen to provide the prime minister time to concentrate on crucial issues of foreign policy have a history of past differences and dislikes that they would no doubt bring to their present jobs. Many political analysts feel that sooner or later, their difference would affect the prime minister adversely in running foreign affairs.

Riaz Khokker, a former senior Pakistani diplomat and very well respected in Islamabad has stated categorically that with the foreign policy issues confronting Pakistan now, this experiment of a foreign policy management team with the prime minister holding on to foreign ministry portfolio with two advisers of different rank, each fighting the other over turf, must end and the country must have a new foreign minister. Common sense dictates that the sooner it is done, the better for Pakistan. There is a rumour in Islamabad that Tariq Fatmi may eventually be sent to the Washington post that he could not assume even after arriving at the post. It may be better if this is done as soon as possible in Pakistan’s interests to end the strange dichotomy in its foreign policy management team.

The writer is a retired Ambassador.

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