Change of guard at the Foreign Office
There will be a change of guard at the Foreign Office early next month when Jalil Abbas Jilani, currently serving as ambassador to the European Union, will take over as Pakistan’s 27th foreign secretary. Meanwhile, the outgoing foreign secretary Salman Bashir has been given the passage to India. As the high commissioner to India, he will occupy Islamabad’s top diplomatic slot in Delhi. Mr Bashir succeeds Shahid Malik, who competently held the Delhi front for almost seven years and set a record of extensions in the process.
Perhaps Salman Bashir’s appointment was prompted by the concern that some continuity was needed on the Pakistan-India track. Simultaneous departure of Pakistan’s two key interlocutors, the foreign secretary and the high commissioner in Delhi, would have meant the process of normalisation, that has finally started rolling after a tense post-Mumbai phase, would have been passed to a new set of hands.
All this plus the outgoing foreign secretary’s proven diplomatic skills notwithstanding, Salman Bashir’s tenure in Delhi will be another case of post-retirement assignment. Many in the Foreign Office will ask why anyone is considered indispensable. Were there no other suitable serving career diplomats available for this key slot? The professional validity of extensions will always be questioned, especially by the younger professionals. It is demoralising for them since it blocks promotions and timely ambassadorial assignments.
The new Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani is a relative of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and comes from Multan. Viewed widely as level-headed and hard working, he is a diplomat with exceptional inter-personal skills. He joined the Pakistan Foreign Service in 1979 and has served in key diplomatic missions abroad including Washington, New Delhi, Brussels, London and Jeddah. Mr Jilani was briefly given additional charge of the Foreign Office Spokesperson in 2005. He also served as deputy secretary at the prime minister’s secretariat during Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s tenure.
Missing from Jilani’s assignment dossier however is China, Pakistan’s only real strategic ally. Interestingly, several notable former foreign secretaries, including Agha Shahi, Inamul Haq, Riaz Khokhar, Riaz Mohammad Khan and Salman Bashir, had all served as ambassadors to China prior to their taking over as foreign secretaries.
Mr Jilani has to his credit a strong India focus and has been the Foreign Office’s longest-serving director-general of South Asia Division. He therefore was the ministry’s point-man on India for almost half a decade. Jilani also served as the deputy high commissioner at Pakistan’s mission in New Delhi in 1999 and later as Acting High Commissioner from 2002 to 2003. He was declared persona non grata and asked to leave by the Indian government on fabricated charges when tension peaked between the two countries in February 2003.
He was director-general South Asia Division during the successful 12th Saarc Summit in Islamabad that paved the way for resumption of the stalled composite dialogue and normalisation process with India. Mr Jilani remained involved in the composite dialogue and this declared persona non grata in India remained closely involved in Pak-India dialogue which also resulted in the initiation of the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service. He was also in the Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan’s team which strongly advocated that Pakistan move the World Bank on the controversial Baglihar Dam dispute with India.
As the new foreign secretary, Mr Jilani will face the challenge of facilitating implementation of the parliament-approved US policy, the management of a challenge-loaded Afghanistan policy and staying the course on a meaningful engagement with Delhi. He will have to deal with the broader policy canvas on which Pakistan needs to be positioned with a role to play in this Asian century.
Within the Foreign Office, the appointment of a new spokesperson is also due but more importantly Mr Jilani will also have to take the initiative of improving the calibre and morale of Pakistan’s current crop of diplomats. Attention has also to be given to career path of promising officers who can effectively execute their respective mandates. On professionalism and merit there must be no compromise. A level-playing field must be ensured to avoid unnecessary resentment and friction that is counterproductive. Come March, the ball will be in the new foreign secretary Jalil Abbas Jillani’s court.
The writer is a senior journalist and has been a diplomatic correspondent for leading dailies. She was an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at The Chicago Tribune in the US and a Press Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge, UK. She can be reached via email at [email protected]