ISLAMABAD: Intense jockeying for the foreign secretary’s position has begun as the time for a final decision is drawing closer and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has initiated deliberations over prospective candidates.
The post will fall vacant after incumbent foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry, who has been designated as ambassador to the US, moves to Washington to take up his new assignment replacing outgoing ambassador Jalil Abbas Jilani.
Mr Jilani will relinquish his charge in the first week of February, but reports suggest that Mr Chaudhry’s departure may be slightly delayed because of the upcoming Economic Cooperation Organisation summit scheduled for the first week of March. However, insiders say, there isn’t anything official as yet about the delay in Mr Chaudhry’s departure for Washington.
Four possible choices before the prime minister for picking the head of the foreign policy bureaucracy are High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit, former ambassador to France Ghalib Iqbal, High Commissioner to the UK Syed Ibn-i-Abbas and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva Tehmina Janjua.
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The prime minister has so far not dropped any hint about who can be his preferred choice for the job. The official line has been that no decision has been taken yet. However, multiple sources say Ms Janjua is the leading choice.
The government is expected to be extremely cautious in picking the next foreign secretary. Mr Sharif has not appointed a full-time foreign minister even though more than two thirds of his tenure has passed and he runs the Foreign Office through an adviser (Sartaj Aziz) and a special assistant (Tariq Fatemi).
Pressure on the prime minister in the selection process is predominantly coming from the people close to his aides. Those engaged in lobbying for the candidates have competing interests.
Mr Sharif was not spared even when he travelled to Davos last week to attend the World Economic Forum meeting. Those promoting candidates continued to push their cases there as well.
In normal practice, seniority-cum-merit would have formed the criteria for appointment of a foreign secretary. But the prime minister may factor in his personal comfort with whosoever he picks and personal recommendations he receives about the candidates.
To quote a former foreign secretary, who wished not to be named, seniority cannot be the only consideration because the appointee should have a multi-dimensional personality to meet the demands of the job. More importantly, he says, the choice should be someone who commands full respect of Foreign Service officers.
One consideration in the past, which has not been lately observed, has been that the incoming foreign secretary should have served as an ambassador in one of the major capitals — Beijing, Washington or New Delhi. In recent years either politicians or retired FO and military officials have been posted in Washington.
High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit is the most senior in the panel of four being considered for the post and has a varied experience of both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.
He joined the Foreign Service in 1982 and has previously served as ambassador to Germany and deputy high commissioner in the UK. His other overseas appointments have been Moscow, New York, Sana and Geneva. He has also remained FO spokesman and served on the disarmament desk.
Mr Basit was PM Sharif’s first choice for foreign secretary when he last picked one in 2013 and was asked in writing to return to headquarters from Berlin for the new assignment. But later the prime minister changed his mind and appointed Aizaz Chaudhry in Dec 2013. Mr Basit was then sent to India as high commissioner.
Although considered as a leading light in the Foreign Service, Mr Basit this time round is out of favour. Differences emerged when the high commissioner hosted Kashmiri leaders ahead of planned Pakistan-India foreign secretaries’ meeting in Aug 2014 leading to the cancellation of bilateral talks. But, according to a source, the meeting with Kashmiri leaders was just one incident and there were series of missteps that sowed misunderstandings.
Former ambassador to France Ghalib Iqbal is another contender.
A former naval officer and an engineering graduate, Mr Iqbal entered the Foreign Service in 1983. He has been posted in Ottawa, Stockholm, Rome and Toronto. At the headquarters, he mostly served as director at the offices of foreign secretary and foreign minister and later as chief of protocol. His major handicap is that he has little experience of working on the territorial desks.
He is currently posted as special secretary at the FO.
High Commissioner to the UK Syed Ibn-e-Abbas also joined the Foreign Service in 1983. Prior to his appointment as the ambassador in London, Mr Abbas was additional secretary (administration) at the headquarters. He has remained high commissioner to New Zealand and deputy high commissioner to India. His other foreign postings have been in Canberra, Geneva and Berne.
Mr Abbas has also been director general for South Asia and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation at the FO.
Tehmina Janjua, Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, is considered hot favourite for the appointment. She joined the Foreign Service in 1984 and her experience has chiefly been of multilateral diplomacy. Her only remarkable bilateral posting has been as ambassador to Rome. Among her other overseas postings are stints at the UN in New York and Geneva.
Ms Janjua has not served on a major territorial desk at the headquarters either except for a year-long posting at the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe desk at the start of her Foreign Service career. At the headquarters, she has worked as director at foreign secretary’s office, director general strategic planning and briefly as spokesperson.