PTI regime and the helpless Foreign Ministry

Diplomats must please politicians if they want good postings

A Letter from Prometheus

Politicians are politicians and they live, rise and fall through their political moves. They come into power for a certain period through elections in a democratic system, they rule during their term and they pass on the government to other political parties or other politicians if they fail in elections. Therefore, political governments are not permanent governments. Almost every country has a political as well as a permanent government, and this permanent government is its civil and military bureaucracy.

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Imran Khan’s cipher fiasco exposed again that our permanent government is crumbling as our political system is. We have listened to an audio leak about what role Principal Secretary to Prime Minister, Azam Khan, played in this tragicomedy theatre. He is a part of the permanent government and he is one of the custodians of the state. The weak character of former Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood is also questionable because the Foreign Office from March 2022 till the end of the PTI government refrained from giving a straightforward answer about the nature of the whole issue. Whenever media persons asked questions about the reality of the cipher, the Foreign Office (FO) never gave a clear-cut answer when Imran Khan was in power, and always responded with ambiguity that supported Khan’s version.

Both Azam Khan and Sohail Mahmood are bureaucrats of Grade 22, the highest attainable rank for a civil servant in Pakistan. We have seen pathetic and immature performances come from both top bureaucrats when they failed to stand for the state and bowed down against a reckless and ill-behaved political government.

This was not the only instance where the Foreign Office failed to perform an expected professional role that was needed during the  42 months of the rule of the PTI. Imran Khan and his team magnificently created difficulties for our ambassadors serving abroad, particularly in countries where Pakistan has high economic and diplomatic stakes. Without any reference, connotation or denotation, former ForeignMminister Shah Mahmood Quraishi once passed derogatory remarks against Saudi Arabia, and then had to withdraw his words. In August 2020, Quraishi said that he would be left with no choice but to advise his prime minister (Imran Khan) to call a session of all those Islamic countries that are ready to stand with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, “with or without” the Saudis.

He was also criticized by Saudi social media for his impolite posture in a meeting with the Saudi Ambassador in Islamabad when his shoe pointed at the Saudi envoy. Diplomatic circles claimed that the then Ambassador of Pakistan in Riyadh Raja Ali Ejaz requested his Minister to review his candid behaviour while meeting with royal dignitaries,the  Minister took serious note of this and Rajs was replaced with Lt. Gen (retd) Bilal Akbar. Raja Ali Ejaz was posted as Ambassador in Riyadh in January 2019 and was replaced in January 2021. Diplomatic circles indicate that General Akbar also expressed the  point of view that Pakistan must be careful and must give due respect and honour to the Saudis while dealing with them.

He was also replaced within the next 10 months and then Quraishi placed his most trustworthy officer as the new Ambassador in Riyadh in November 2021.  In two years, Pakistan changed three Ambassadors in Riyadh. It is believed in diplomatic circles that if a country keeps changing its Ambassador in a host country, actually it wants to send a message to the host country that the station (country) is problematic.

We remember that former Minister for Human Rights Shirin Mazari wrote a Twitter message against the French President and it bounced back within hours and the French Embassy in Pakistan strongly reacted. We also remember the Turkish solid waste management firm was unceremoniously sent away. We also recall that the Chinese-led Orange Train project of Lahore was halted for a long period and PTI had been trying to find corruption in the project. I recollect former Railway Minister Sheikh Rasheed saying large-scale corruption was involved in the ML-1 project that the PM(N) government signed with the Chinese government. He ordered an investigation but nothing came out of this probe. However, Chinese firms took back seats and waited for normalcy in Pakistan so the ML-1 project was halted.

The PTI epoch gives a lesson to learn that there must be a strong and independent Secretary in office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; as strong as in the Ministry of Defence. Foreign Office is as important as the Ministry of Defence if we talk about the interests of the country and there should be a minimum role of politicians in transfers and posting as we see in the ministry of Defence.

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Statements of former Federal Minister for Communication Murad Saeed against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project claiming large-scale corruption involved in it had also been a problem for the Chinese because such statements had been used in official reports the USA prepared against the CPEC project.

In November 2019, Ambassador Alice Wells, the then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia at the US Department of State, raised several critical questions about CPEC during her talks at Woodrow Wilson Center, citing several statements of Pakistani politicians and the then serving ministers (of PTI government). The then Ambassador of China to Pakistan Yao Jing repulsed the narrative of Ambassador Wells about CPEC and said that the China-Pakistan relationship is (was) mutually beneficial and based on “win-win cooperation” for both sides. The Chinese Ambassador stated that CPEC projects were investigated and it was unanimously concluded that there was no corruption in their affairs.

In March 2022, the then prime minister Imran Khan condemned the  European Union (EU) for asking Islamabad to condemn Russia over the Ukraine-Russia war. While addressing a public meeting in Vihari, he lambasted EU ambassadors for writing a letter to the Foreign Office of Pakistan urging Pakistan to vote against Russia in a special UN General Assembly session on the Ukraine war.

This was the first instance Imran Khan abused foreign countries (except India) in a political public meeting for gaining domestic popularity. Then there was no end to this practice. The cipher fiasco was the pinnacle of the diplomatic shows PTI had in public meetings.  When he was using the cipher for purely political purposes, the White House kept rejecting claims of Imran Khan regarding Washington’s role in an alleged “foreign conspiracy” to oust him from power.

Khan was voted out in April 2022 but he started claiming in March 2022 that “an international conspiracy against was part of regime change funded by western countries”.

In his March 27 public meeting, he claimed he was punished for not supporting Ukraine’s cause and visiting Moscow when President Putin initiated the bombing over Ukraine.

From March 27 to November 15, Imran Khan took several positions and took several U-turns over domestic issues he blames and claims against establishments kept changing but he kept saying that he is the victim of a US conspiracy. He had been establishing that the USA ruined Pakistan and it was also involved in the judicial murder of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Now he has taken a remarkable U-turn. In his latest interview published in The Financial Times, Imran said that he no longer “blamed” the USA and wants a “dignified” relationship if re-elected.

“As far as I’m concerned it’s over, it’s behind me. Pakistan and I (Imran) want to lead good relationships with everyone, especially the United States” said Imran Khan.

In an interview, he also admitted his visit to Moscow a day before the Russia-Ukraine war started in February — for which he claims the USA retaliated against him — was “embarrassing” but said the trip was organized months in advance.

What Imran Khan and his cabinet members had been saying against foreign countries could be the political demand of PTI for domestic gains. They are politicians and they have their own interests, therefore, I would not blame them for what damage they have done to the foreign relations of Pakistan by antagonizing friendly and important countries. However, I am amazed at what a puny role professional diplomats sitting in the Foreign Office played during the whole fiasco spreading over 42 months. Could they not stop the reckless PTI when its politicians were damaging foreign relations with Pakistan? Is pleasing politicians for better foreign postings more important than safeguarding state interest through showing professional displeasure against the thoughtless actions of politicians?

When you talk with someone in the Foreign Service cadre, the answer is simple: The Foreign Service cadre has limited choices and chances of postings and they have to entertain politicians for lucrative postings so they keep pleasing their political bosses.  Their answer is not so unfounded because we have seen large-scale foreign postings during the PTI era mostly done through the procedure of pick and choose instead of appreciating professional credentials.

The PTI epoch gives a lesson to learn that there must be a strong and independent Secretary in office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; as strong as in the Ministry of Defence. Foreign Office is as important as the Ministry of Defence if we talk about the interests of the country and there should be a minimum role of politicians in transfers and posting as we see in the ministry of Defence.

Agha Iqrar Haroon
The writer is an international award winning journalist who has been in the field since 1988 and appears in national and international media as analyst and political scientist.

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