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The best of both worlds

Published Dec 15, 2012 02:02am


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THESE last few days, the society pages of Colombo dailies have been full of accounts and photographs of farewell receptions for Seema Baloch, Pakistan’s popular high commissioner.

Judging from these comments, as well as the impressions of Sri Lankan friends who have met her, she has been an extremely effective representative for Pakistan.

On the couple of occasions I have spent any time with her, she has come across as extremely well-informed about Sri Lanka, with a wide network of friends and contacts in business, artistic and political circles. As Ms Baloch heads back home for a well-earned retirement after a successful career as a diplomat, I can say she will be missed by her many friends here.

Unfortunately, her recent predecessors have not earned the same popularity.

Most of them have been retired or serving military officers, and seem to have met few people of any consequence outside the Sri Lankan military and government.

Ms Baloch, by contrast, did much to project Pakistani culture: when I first met her a year ago, she asked me for ideas on how to have Pakistani writers sponsored to attend the Galle Literary Festival.

And days before leaving Colombo, she arranged a screening of the popular Pakistani movie Khuda kay Liye.

All this is part of a good diplomat’s normal duties, so in that sense, Ms Baloch was just doing her job. But military officers are unfamiliar with the importance of soft power, being only trained in the use of the other kind.

Years ago, I served under a very senior retired air force officer at our mission in Washington. A decent human being, he had the reputation of being an outstanding officer. But as a diplomat, he lacked social skills; more importantly, he had no idea of the complicated working of the American foreign policy establishment. He was thus totally dependent on his staff officers and the embassy lobbyist for advice.

The point here is that our outgoing high commissioner is to be replaced by a retired army general. I have never met the gentleman, and can only wish him luck in his new assignment, but judging from the reported performance of his ex-colleagues who have served in Colombo, I don’t have any high hopes for a brilliant tenure.

The problem is that while military officers are considered to be trained to take on any civilian job, in truth they have failed more often than not. The reason is that they spend a lifetime receiving and giving orders, and either carrying them out, or expecting them to be followed to the letter. Outside the confines of the barracks, things are a whole lot messier.

While I have known a few duds, Pakistan has produced some outstanding diplomats, and the foreign service still has some excellent officers. But over the years, the induction of increasing numbers of retired military officers has undermined the morale of our diplomats.

Recently, there was an uproar in the Foreign Office over the proposed appointment of an ex-naval officer as our ambassador to China. The president backed down in the face of fierce opposition, and has now decided to send the officer to Paris instead. I could do with a consolation prize like that….

But this policy of colonising civilian posts with serving and retired officers is nothing new. In Ayub Khan’s day, a few selected army officers were inducted into the civil service. Bhutto launched his Lateral Entry scheme to introduce ‘fresh blood’ into the civil and foreign services.

But it wasn’t until Zia that this practice was institutionalised: the dictator decreed that 10 per cent of all superior service posts would be reserved for serving military officers.

Now, there are large numbers of captains and majors in the civil service, with the police being the most popular. And not only are these officers inducted, but they are also placed at the top of the seniority of the batch to which they are arbitrarily assigned.

The argument given for this colonisation of the civil bureaucracy is that unlike government officials, military officers seldom serve until they are 60. Unless they make the next grade by a certain age, they are retired. And in the old days, if senior officers were superseded, they would ask for early retirement. Now, of course, they cling on for as long as they can because of all the perks.

I am not suggesting for a moment that most civil service jobs can’t be handled by reasonably intelligent people. It is precisely to weed out incapable candidates that the Central Superior Services (CSS) exam was devised. In fact, in virtually every country, beginning with China thousands of years ago, those wishing to join the civil service submit to intensive tests and interviews.

But by parachuting in serving and retired military officers, this useful (if imperfect) test of general knowledge, subject specialisation and writing skills is bypassed. Military officers argue that they receive training in their own institutions. Of course they do, but this is specific to purely military subjects.

If they feel they are as well-educated as candidates who often prepare for the CSS exam for a year after completing a Master’s degree, then they should be willing to take the exam too. The truth is that a high school diploma is all that’s needed to apply to join the military, and given the state of our educational system, this isn’t much of a qualification.

Perhaps I am biased by having spent three decades in the civil service in a wide variety of jobs. By and large, I had a successful and fulfilling career before I took early retirement and went into the private sector.

Today, for obvious reasons, military officers facing a dead end in their careers try and use their contacts to join the civil service, preferring field jobs like the police or the district management group. And customs and income tax will do very nicely too, thank you.

Some countries like the US have a ‘spoils system’ in which hundreds of government jobs are up for grabs when an administration changes. These include ambassadorial positions that are given as rewards for political support. In other countries like France, no political appointees are given local or overseas posts at all.

The military is enjoying the best of both worlds: while plundering the civil service, it allows no outsiders into its own hierarchy.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (14) Closed

ahsan Dec 15, 2012 06:51am
true !!
observer Dec 15, 2012 08:03am
It is surprising how the retired generals over-estimate their skills. They seem to think they are know-alls and fit anywhere and everywhere.
Karachi Wala Dec 15, 2012 10:35am
"The military is enjoying the best of both worlds: while plundering the civil service, it allows no outsiders into its own hierarchy." Har shaakh pe ullu baitha hai anjam-e-gulistan kya hoga.
Qamar Dec 15, 2012 04:35pm
Why Steel Mills was profitable under the chairmanship of a retired General? Why PIA reached its Zenith under retired Air Marshal Noor Khan? Why retired Admiral Ahsan was the only sane voice prior to start of military action in East Pakistan?
G.A. Dec 15, 2012 04:16pm
Perhaps CSS graduates, bankers, airline pilots and police officers should also be allowed into top military posts after retirement. It's only fair. It's not like the generals have given us much to celebrate with their performances in the military or civilian institutions.
Imran Dec 15, 2012 12:06pm
The last sentence is most interesting. Would be nice to see an SSP or a DCO posted as a Brigade commander. I'm sure they'll do fine. Just gotta play some golf, inaugurate a bakery or two, jog in the evening, distribute some trophies at Army Public School and finally get a plot in Defence. See, easy peasy.
Ali Dec 15, 2012 07:27am
No wonder arm forces have done more harm than good to the country.
Masood Hussain Dec 15, 2012 05:42pm
Not that i am in favour of inducting retired or serving army personnel in cvilian domain,my experience is that both catagories of service men have same approach to the diplomatic jobs they tend to enjoy being staying abroad at the expence of public money,doing nothing much for their country.May be there are few exceptions like Seema Baloch.
Parvez Dec 15, 2012 06:23pm
This was definitely one of your better articles, simply because what you say comes across as true. I like the way you show the deterioration in human capital at the highest levels.
NASAH (USA) Dec 15, 2012 11:17am
It is at least NOT the army's fault that the school grade educated retired army officers are being picked for highly complex civilian jobs.
Asim Dec 15, 2012 06:29pm
Its interesting how see how senior military personnel behave in public. A friend of mine who works in a high-tech firm in Canada recently told me that a Pakistani general descended upon his company with his entourage. The general would only shake hands with those who he deemed worthy of his attention i.e. senior management. It is as if hiding behind the arrogance is the only way to conceal their utter incompetence. According to my friend the general reminded him of the arrogance of the Russian generals during his time in Russian military. I could very well imagine the relationship however, while Russian military serves the civilian government, Pakistani civilians serve the military. Hopefully that will change one day.
sja Dec 15, 2012 03:34pm
I like the title of your current columns because besides Seema Baloch retirement and heading back to home, there is news in the air that the Supreme Court of Pakistan has order another great patriot to appear before the Apex court on January 7, 2013. See how varied Pakistanis are by their choices, one patriotic and proud to serve in foreign service of Pakistan and maintain good relations with foreign country like Sri Lanka, now see we have another great patriot who serves in Pakistan from foreign so you see best of the both worlds. I am pretty sure Seema, is Pakistani by allegiance but the great patriot has UK nationality also, so we will see if he has any IMMUNITY from the JURISDICITON OF SUPREME COURT. Just like the President has immunity and I am pretty sure, a foreign national is also or should be immune, from Pakistani judicial jurisdiction. There are Pakistanis who serve in Pakistan Foreign Service so loyally and there are Pakistanis in Foreign Jurisdictions who serve so intensely in PAKISTAN. YOU ARE SO RIGHT, IRFAN BAHI THAT IT IS THE BEST OF THE BOTH WORLDS -------------------- SERVING PAKISTAN.
Haseeb Dec 15, 2012 11:17pm
Well written Article Mr. Irfan. They might be well trained in military tactics or other fields, but as far as public administration is concerned they have no idea how to deal with the public.neither they know how to implement the public policy in letter and spirit. Apart from that in a country like pakistan where jobs are scarce, giving jobs to serving or even retired army officials is unjustified and is equal to looting the rights of ordinary citizens. We all must unite to stop this looting and ask our representatives to devise laws protecting the right of ordinary citizens of getting job in public service.
Waheed Arshad Dec 16, 2012 12:57am
Officers of the armed forces should only serve in the armed forces and then retire honorably. Whereas civil servants (bureaucrats) should only serve in the civil service. Diplomatic assignments should only be given to the trained Foreign Service officers or to the leaders of the civil society. Army and civil servants should also be prevented from leading Government owned companies such as the steel mill. Such Government owned companies until privatized, should be run by those who have a proven track record in the private enterprise as business leaders, so that they can well prepare these companies for eventual privatization.