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Change of guard at the foreign ministry

February 25, 2005

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ISLAMABAD: Mr Riaz Mohammad Khan's taking over charge as Pakistan's 25th foreign secretary almost coincided with talks between India and Pakistan that led to the agreement on starting a Kashmir bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad.

Outgoing foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar hosted a reception at the foreign ministry last week to say goodbye to his friends and introduce his successor. Almost the entire diplomatic corps, parliamentarians and top bureaucrats had turned up to bid him farewell and to welcome the new foreign policy manager.

Prominent among the guests was Indian High Commissioner Shivshankar Menon who seemed more upbeat than most other diplomats present on the occasion.

Riaz Mohammad Khan, 59, shares more than just part of his name with the man whom he replaces as foreign secretary. Both are seasoned career diplomats who served as ambassadors to China before being offered the top slot at the foreign ministry.

Like Riaz Khokhar, Riaz Mohammad Khan is also forthright and candid. Undeterred by authority and unfazed by the lure of position and post, Riaz Khan is known to have been unrelenting in his disagreement with certain elements of Pakistan's Afghan policy which he handled as director-general of the section dealing with the Soviet Union and Afghanistan from 1986 to 1992 at the foreign ministry.

Most recently, when he was tipped to be foreign secretary and informed about the decision to split the post into two - foreign secretary policy and foreign secretary administration he resisted it.

He raised the issue with the prime minister as well as the president. He argued with both that the institution could not be run efficiently without unity of command. His point that without administrative control of the ministry he would be virtually devoid of any authority to manage it was well taken by both the leaders.

Subsequently, the earlier bifurcation plan under which key posting and promotion powers were to be given to the secretary, administration, was revised, and it was eventually decided that the secretary, administration, would deal only with the financial and other related matters.

Khokhar had joined the foreign service of Pakistan in 1966 as a young, bright officer with great promise. He was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's man 'chosen' to minute all his meetings.

Khokhar subsequently minuted the most important period of Pakistan's history when a civilian elected prime minister began work on what was later to become a key element of the country's national security - its nuclear programme.

When Khokhar was high commissioner to India in the 90s, he created many ripples with his 'in your face' remarks. The Indians saw him as a "hawk" and a "hard liner" on Indo-Pakistan relations.

He had completed his tenure on December 31, 2004 but was asked to continue in office till the 13th Saarc summit scheduled for Feb 6-7 in Dhaka. However, India's last-minute withdrawal from the summit denied him the opportunity to make his farewell appearance at the Saarc forum.

At his reception, Khokhar declared that under Riaz Mohammad Khan's watch, the ministry would achieve higher goals in the realm of foreign policy. This sentiment is shared by many in diplomatic circles who have seen Riaz Mohammad from close quarters.

A comment from one guest was that he would bring "a healing touch" to the foreign ministry. The reference was probably to the Khokhar-Kasuri friction. The word around is that the government has plans of using Khokhar as a special envoy for promoting Pakistan's foreign policy goals abroad.

The day Riaz Mohammad took over Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh arrived in the capital on a bilateral visit, the first by an Indian foreign minister since 1989. Riaz Mohammad's second day in office marked a historic breakthrough in the peace process with the two governments giving the green light to the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service.

Riaz Mohammad is considered a thorough professional and is widely respected in the diplomatic community. He has rich experience in multilateral diplomacy and was one of the central figures in the Geneva talks on Afghanistan that ultimately led to the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

He later wrote a book on the talks, 'Untying the Afghan knot: Negotiating Soviet Withdrawal', which was published by Duke University Press in 1991. From 1989 to 1990 he was on sabbatical at the Georgetown University in Washington DC as resident scholar.

He has occupied strategically significant positions in Pakistan's missions abroad. Just like his last posting abroad, his first in 1970 was also in Beijing, where he learned Chinese. In 1975 he co-authored a study on Chinese communes, "Yellow Sand Hills", which was published in Bangladesh.

He has held ambassadorial posts in Belgium and Kazakhstan, and occupied important position at the Pakistan mission in New York. In May 2003 his name topped the list of candidates nominated by the foreign office for the slot of Pakistan's high commissioner in India. However, the government eventually decided against recalling him from Beijing where he had then spent less than a year as ambassador.

Riaz Khan also served briefly as the foreign office spokesman at a critical juncture following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Before joining the foreign service of Pakistan in 1969, he was an assistant professor in mathematics at the Punjab University, Lahore, from 1965 to 1968.

Riaz Khan has a fondness for poetry and Urdu literature that, his colleagues say, is often reflected in his diplomacy. His wife, an American, has been employed with the US State Department for several years.

At one point she was posted in Moscow but is currently working at the department's Foreign Service Training Institute in Washington. Notably, this is the first time in Pakistan's foreign service history that we have a foreign secretary whose wife is an American national and is a serving US State Department official.