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The best of both worlds

December 15, 2012

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.

irfan.husain@gmail.com