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Will the real FM please stand up?

Updated June 13, 2013

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Tariq Fatemi and Sartaj Aziz. — File
Tariq Fatemi and Sartaj Aziz. — File

ISLAMABAD: The PML-N government’s decision to appoint two of its senior members to handle the foreign policy creates a situation where nobody is in control of one of the most important ministries, leaving ample space for a turf war.

Party officials say Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wants to remain in control of the country’s foreign policy while taking assistance from two experienced hands, including former foreign minister Sartaj Aziz and former senior diplomat Tariq Fatemi.

Veteran Muslim Leaguer Sartaj Aziz was appointed advisor to the premier on foreign affairs and national security, with the status of a federal minister, whereas seasoned diplomat Tariq Fatemi was appointed special assistant to the prime minister on foreign affairs with a status of minister of state.

Both Fatemi (as special assistant) and Aziz (as advisor) are part of Prime Minister Sharif’s foreign policy team. However, Fatemi is occupying an office in the Foreign Ministry, whereas Aziz will be given space in the prime minister’s secretariat.

Signs of a tussle between the two have already started to become visible in the absence of a full-fledged minister for foreign affairs. Experts say Prime Minister Sharif’s decision to keep the portfolio of foreign affairs with himself leaves no one in control of the ministry. The confusion stemming from this situation became visible during the recent visit of German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle as until the last minute people in the ministry were unaware as to which of the two was going to address the joint press conference with the visiting dignitary.

In this situation the need for a full-fledged foreign minister has been felt in the capital’s influential circles.

“Pakistan is facing enormous and complex foreign policy issues and this requires that the country should have a fulltime foreign minister,” says Riaz Khokhar, former foreign secretary and an influential voice in Islamabad.

A plausible reason for not appointing a full time foreign minister is that the ruling party ranks also seem to lack a workable face to represent the government upon the world stage.

However, a senior official of the ruling party said the prime minister’s understanding is that the crucial foreign policy issues confronting the country require his direct and personal involvement.

At the same time, it is being felt in the ruling party that the prime minister’s engagements with domestic policy issues would not allow him to allocate sufficient time for foreign policy issues, especially in the initial period of his five-year-long tenure.

Besides, experts say that the day-to-day handling of some of the low key, but important, foreign policy issues also requires intense engagement with foreign policy. This is something which a prime minister who would be busy in managing the domestic crisis would not be able to undertake.

“The prime minister’s responsibility is essentially to lay out a vision and ensure the implementation of his policies...the foreign minister has to do a lot of running around, and even in the context of protocol, it is not appropriate that the prime minister retain the portfolio of foreign minister,” says Khokhar.

So far the tussle between Aziz and Fatemi seems restricted to bureaucratic turf war over who is going to do what and who is going to act as the prime minister’ eyes and ears on foreign policy issues. However, experts and insiders say that conflicting policy inclinations of the two would most certainly lead them into a more intense turf war on policy issues.

There is no dearth of foreign policy observers in Islamabad who vividly remember the days when Fatemi and Aziz were in the opposing camps on the crucial issue of signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests.

At that time, Aziz was serving as foreign minister in Nawaz Sharif’s second government. He was taking a soft position on Washington’s demand for Pakistan to sign CTBT, whereas, Fatemi, who was serving at the foreign office (though not on a very senior position) at the time, was part of the group of bureaucrats who were actively and strongly opposing the signing of the treaty.

This group of bureaucrats was exerting pressure on the prime minister and for a time had managed to effectively sideline Aziz in the CTBT debate. A former foreign office official told Dawn.com that Fatemi was part of the group which was working to block Aziz’s access to the prime minister on crucial issues like nuclear arms control.

Will the old rivalry assume a new form in the current situation? Insiders say there is every chance that it will. Before joining the prime minister’s team, Fatemi used to write a column for an English language daily and experts and observers have described his writings as “moderately Anti-American”.

On the other hand Aziz is still considered to be in the good books of Washington. A former foreign secretary told Dawn.com that it appeared that Aziz was appointed as a member of Prime Minister Sharif’s foreign policy team precisely because “he is well-known and well-respected in Washington”.