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Pakistan’s Charismatic Foreign Minister’s Overriding Policy Challenges

Pakistan's Charismatic Foreign Minister's Overriding Policy Challenges

Pakistanis do know that they have an image problem. They have a unique way of addressing this tough challenge. Many in Pakistan have historically believed that electing and appointing women to key posts can help improve the country’s unpopular international image. At a time when Islamabad’s diplomatic ties with Washington have reached their lowest ebb, Pakistan appointed its first female foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar. A former Minister of State on foreign affairs, Ms. Khar, 34, is the youngest foreign minister in the history of a country whose hostile foreign policy has backfired at home and created a mess in its neighborhood.

In the past, Pakistan had elected Benazir Bhutto as the first prime minister of the Islamic world. Likewise, Dr. Fahmida Mirza of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was elected as the first female Speaker of parliament in the Muslim world. Ms. Khar is an addition to the precedent of electing women to present a softer image of the nuclear-armed Muslim nation. However, what makes these cosmetic changes unappealing for the people of Pakistan is the fact that all these women come from elite political families. Had Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, not founded the PPP in 1967 and served as Pakistan’s President and Prime Minister, Bhutto would perhaps never have become the first female Prime Minister. Similarly, had Ms. Mirza’s husband, Dr. Zulfiqar Mirza, not been a crony of President Asif Ali Zadari and the Interior Minister of the Sindh province, she would not have been elected to the coveted post of Speaker of Pakistan’s 342-member National Assembly.

The beautiful foreign minister has attracted much attention in the South Asian media for all reasons except for issues pertaining to foreign policy. Many look at her as an extremely inexperienced politician to hold such a significant position at a critical juncture of the the US-Pak and Indo-Pak relations and momentous developments in the Af-Pak region.

Pointing out the weak areas of the newly appointed foreign minister, respected political analyst M. Ilyas Khan of the BBC, noted: “Many doubters point to her young age – 34 – and the fact that she has a degree in hotel management. They suggest she may lack the stature and experience necessary for her new post, given the powerful military’s long history of involvement in Pakistan’s foreign policy. To be fair to her, countless men in this role have in the past failed to challenge the military’s perception of how to run the country’s foreign affairs. Will she fare any better?”

The young and inexperienced foreign minister initially had to face two major challenges. First, to discuss the India-Pakistan relations with her senior counter-part S.M. Krishna. Secondly, to fix the almost frozen relationship with the United States.

In spite of all the pressure and criticism, Ms. Khar did a splendid job during her first assignment in negotiations with the Indians, who agreed to continue the negotiation process with Pakistan. The foreign ministers of bot countries agreed, “to the continuation of the dialogue process and to the convening series of secretaries-level meetings on counter-terrorism (including progress on Mumbai trial) and narcotics control; humanitarian issues; commercial and economic cooperation; Wullar Barrage/Tulbul navigation project; Sir Creek (at the level of additional secretaries/surveyors general); Siachen; peace and security, including CBMs; Jammu & Kashmir; and promotion of friendly exchanges.”

The foreign ministers also agreed to meet in the first half of 2012 to review progress on the dialogue process.

According to the India-Pakistan joint-statement:

“The [foreign] ministers also agreed that people of the two countries are at the heart of the relationship and that issues of people-to-people contacts and humanitarian issues should be accorded priority and treated with sensitivity.

The ministers also emphasized promotion of cooperation in various fields including, facilitating visits to religious shrines, media exchanges, holding of sports tournaments and cessation of hostile propaganda against each other.”

At the end of the day, the success of Ms. Khar hinges upon the support she gets from the military establishment which actually determines the country’s foreign policy. The future of Pakistan’s relations with the United States, India and Afghanistan depend on curbing and containing the Pakistan-based Islamic radical groups, which may, with their terrorist activities, create a situation beyond the control of the young foreign minister.



Malik Siraj Akbar

Malik Siraj Akbar is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC. A 2010-11 Hubert Humphrey Fellow, Malik is the editor-in-chief of The Baloch Hal, the first online English newspaper of Balochistan, Pakistan's largest province. He worked for five years as the Bureau Chief of Daily Times, a reputed Pakistani English newspaper.