In today’s interconnected world, people take great interest in foreign policy because it is about conflict and peace, distribution of wealth and power equilibriums within the framework of state-to-state relations. However, there is hardly any country besides Pakistan where there is so much interest in foreign policy operations.
There is news from the Foreign Office that Sohail Mahmood, currently serving as high commissioner to India, will be taking over as the next foreign secretary of the country in a little over a week from now. He would replace Tehmina Janjua, the first woman to become country’s foreign secretary. She will be retiring soon.
Mahmood as the next foreign secretary does not surprise many. As a matter of fact, there was not much of a race. Maybe there was not much interest in the job, which is quite challenging given the kind of circumstances facing the country on the external front. One did not see the usual lobbying that precedes such high appointments. Or Mahmood was too compelling a candidate.
Mahmood, 57, will be in the office as the bureaucratic lead of the Foreign Office for the next three years. He will take the assignment at a time when Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s interest and focus in domestic politics is increasing. Qureshi has lately been seen everywhere, from negotiations with the Opposition on the National Action Plan and filling the Election Commission vacancies, to a public spat with his party colleague Jehangir Tareen. It is important to keep that context in view, because it will define the working space the new foreign secretary will have.
The arrival of the new foreign secretary will hardly have any impact on the policy or its operations. It is well known who decides the contours of the foreign policy in our country, and the course of whatsoever part the political side has with it was defined with the arrival of the new government in August 2018. The only difference that any new foreign secretary brings to the office is about his personality and how he operates the FO machinery along with its overseas missions.
Colleagues say Mahmood is a quiet person with a low key presence. He is not known to be the argumentative sort, but enjoys a reputation of being a strong and capable mind under stressful situations.
His approach to work is said to have more focus on the political role of Foreign Office (the political dimension of external relations). Some say that focus is at the cost of the attention that the administrative and consular side of FO’s work deserves. He may probably strike a balance in his new role, but it remains an area where he would be keenly followed by his colleagues in the ministry. The new secretary should not look at overseas missions just as political outposts. Moreover, the current government’s emphasis on consular services of the foreign ministry would also require the new secretary to re-set his work priorities.
The administrative part of FO has not been in good shape for some time. The administrative side, especially the career progression of officers, will require Mahmood’s immediate attention. FO insiders suggest that the new secretary should revive the Additional Secretaries Forum for internal consultations and deliberations.
The immediate challenges for the new foreign secretary pertaining to the external agenda include management of tensions with India, relations with US, facilitation of Afghan reconciliation, addressing perceptions about the country’s international commitments on counter-terrorism, building a partnership with China and saving Pakistan from the Sino-US rivalry, consolidating progress on ties with Arab countries, handling issues with Iran and economic diplomacy.
The list is extensive and exhaustive but Mahmood is lucky to be current on India, which was his last posting and has remained involved with most of the issues in his previous appointments at FO as Director General (Americas), Director General (Foreign Secretary’s Office), and Additional Secretary for Afghanistan and West Asia between 2005 and 2015. He has not worked on China as yet, but that is one of Pakistan’s smoothest relations. Lack of experience on China should not be a big impediment for him.
Foreign policy experts say Mahmood will have to act differently on the external agenda. The usual way is fixated on analysis, assessments and reviews. These experts say there is already lot of such stuff and the new foreign secretary should approach the issues in a proactive way.
Though many experts do not put the issue of aligning foreign policy goals with the national development needs high on the new foreign secretary’s agenda, he would still definitely need to devote his energies in that direction.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org