Pakistan high commissioner to India tipped for top FO slot

Updated January 27, 2019

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Ambassador to UAE is the other name being talked about as foreign secretary’s retirement nears. — File
Ambassador to UAE is the other name being talked about as foreign secretary’s retirement nears. — File

ISLAMABAD: High Commissioner to India Sohail Mahmood is the clear front runner to become the country’s top diplomat when Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua steps down on her retirement.

Ms Janjua, who was the first woman to become Pakistan’s foreign secretary, will retire on April 17 after serving in the position for two years.

The race for the foreign secretary’s job this time round has been lacklustre particularly when compared to the bruising competitions on the last two occasions — 2013 and 2017. The last race was especially ugly because it ended with the resignation of former high commissioner to India Abdul Basit, who was once the FO’s rising star. And few can forget the spat between the former high commissioner and the then outgoing foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry that became public.

The 2013 run, meanwhile, was made interesting because of a snafu by the PML-N government that recalled Mr Basit from Germany, where he was posted as ambassador, and appointed him the foreign secretary, but then replaced his nomination with Aizaz before he could take charge. That episode set up the bitter fight witnessed in 2017.

Ambassador to UAE is the other name being talked about as foreign secretary’s retirement nears

In the current race Ambassador to the EU, Belgium and Luxembourg Naghmana Hashmi is the senior most followed by Sohail Mahmood, second in the seniority, and Ambassador to Italy Nadeem Riaz and Envoy to Germany Johar Saleem, in the third and fourth places, respectively. Ambassador Mahmood, Amb Riaz and Amb Saleem are from the same course — 13th Common — but Mr Mahmood is senior in intra-batch seniority. The other name that is being talked about in the race for the top slot of FO is ambassador to the UAE Moazzam Ahmad, who is far too down on the seniority list placed at the ninth rung.

Ms Hashmi, many believe, is not in contention because of her impending retirement in about a year and a half. The government, therefore, wants to post somebody who has sufficient time on hand. Ms Hashmi is instead tipped to be posted as ambassador to China.

The other planned rotations linked to the foreign secretary’s appointment in one way or the other are Ambassador Saleem moving to Brussels in place of Ms Hashmi. His place in Germany is, meanwhile, planned to be filled by Zaheer Janjua, who was recalled from Moscow in 2016.

Mr Mahmood’s colleagues describe him as affable and workaholic. He is also said to be very strong in drafting. He has a ‘high blood count’ on the official performance grading. Moreover, he has a diverse experience of bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy under his belt, having represented the country in Turkey, the US, the UN in New York, Thailand and India. He has also headed the Afghanistan and West Asia Division as additional secretary and remained director general of foreign secretary’s office.

His detractors, nevertheless, say he is a very soft voice and lacks dominating physical presence in meetings. One of them quipped, “as a matter of fact foreign ministers do not really want a domineering, combative figure as the head of FO bureaucracy. They are rather interested in someone who would not rock the boat”.

Another source said Mr Mahmood had a lucky career in Foreign Service and “has been at the right place at the right time”.

Ms Janjua, the outgoing foreign secretary, had also come in office with a relatively low profile.

While commenting on her tenure, former foreign secretary Salman Bashir said Ms Janjua “performed very well in a quiet way”. She, he reminisced, had always been a troubleshooter and as a foreign secretary steered foreign policy operations in an effective way.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2019