(Wikimedia Commons) Many foreign affairs analysts and practitioners hold the view that the Foreign Office in Pakistan ceded control of foreign policy making (in particular, with regard to India, Afghanistan, and the U.S.) to the military establishment during General Zia’s regime in the 1980s.[1] As a result, the institutional development of the Foreign Office and the professional development of its diplomats have suffered enormously. Officials representing the country abroad are limited in developing policy guidance, taking on new initiatives, and formulating new strategies.

This dynamic is not unique to Pakistan. Indeed, the balance of power between diplomatic and security institutions all over the world is tense, as not only are both groups usually consulted in national decision-making, but also they often harbor differing perspectives and convictions. The British Army (under the control of the Ministry of Defense), for instance, believes in fighting ISIS alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the British Foreign Office rejects this approach. In the U.S. the Pentagon often clashes with the State Department on foreign policy matters pertaining to military efforts. So the question arises: given this contention for influence, which entity triumphs in the end?

Senator Mushahid Hussain, who doubles as a foreign policy analyst, claims that Pakistan’s Foreign Office takes positions independent of its military establishment.[2] In order to support his claim, he references the contrasting postures of the Foreign Office and the Pakistani military toward the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan at the Geneva Convention talks in 1988. The Foreign Office supported civilian Prime Minister Junejo, who threw his weight behind UN efforts to mediate the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. The stance of the Foreign Office also received backing from the U.S. and other allies. Meanwhile, General Zia opposed the withdrawal plan because he wanted the Pakistani army to secure a victory for Mujahedeen.[3] Thus in the end the general was left politically isolated.

However, the Pakistani army’s evident control of foreign policy in recent months dictates otherwise. The current incumbent army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has actively pursued foreign policy goals with total disregard for the Foreign Office, thereby bypassing the influence of the civilian regime. During his recent meetings in Kabul with the President of Afghanistan, General Sharif was not accompanied by the Pakistani ambassador, nor any other Foreign Office official. The Foreign Office was not even granted a ceremonial presence at the events.

Some analysts assert that the elected civilian regime under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was forced to surrender authority over foreign policy matters to the military establishment. They cite the 2014 protests challenging the newly elected prime minister’s attempt to assert his authority on key policy matters and the subsequent pact between the military and Prime Minister Sharif in support of this argument.

Owen Bennet Jones, a senior BBC journalist and expert on Pakistani politics, observed that the “Foreign Office in Islamabad often seems to be the last to find out when something related to international relations has happened.”[4] Ambassador Wajid Shamsul Hasan, two-time former ambassador to London, asserts that the “Foreign Office became an extension of the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) after the 1970s.”[5] While this claim might be exaggerated, by looking at the institutional development of the Foreign Office and the functioning of individual missions abroad, the root of such an impression becomes easier to understand.

In the first few decades after the birth of the country, the Foreign Office attracted top recruits. Until the late 1950s, its training program was vastly different from those of all of the other diplomatic services. Recruits were first sent to the Fletcher School of Diplomacy in the U.S. for a year. They then spent six months in France to learn the language and finally concluded their training with a period in the British Foreign Office. These days, Foreign Office recruits take a common entrance exam, train by spending a year in a Pakistani institute with all of the other successful candidates to the Central Superior Services, and subsequently study at the Foreign Service Academy. Senator Mushahid Hussain, who ran the training program for newly inducted diplomats during the 1970s, argues that “like the American system, we should have in Pakistan…a separate examination for the foreign service so that… those who are genuinely interested in diplomacy should join the Foreign Service, rather than [have] a mechanical distribution of slots based on various considerations.” The current training of diplomats clearly does not equip young recruits in quite the same way as in the past, thus creating an opening for military power and influence both during the training process and while diplomats are serving abroad.

The Foreign Office has also lost its ability to be intellectually self-sufficient. Ahmed Rashid, author of several books about Pakistani foreign policy, laments that “there is no permanent think-tank in the Foreign Office to look at issues ahead of their time and plan measures to take – there are few original papers written which try and change foreign policy or point policy in another fresher direction. Until the 1980s, there was a great deal more thought put into foreign policy by the Foreign Office.”[6] Some foreign policy analysts believe that extra-institutional interference by the military establishment is responsible for the lack of initiative in the Pakistani Foreign Office. Young diplomats often adopt the thinking of the military establishment, primarily due to its pervading influence in the Foreign Office, but also simply out of concern for the advancement of their own careers.

Pakistani missions abroad – the high commissions and the embassies – can be seen as a microcosm of the Foreign Office and, in a larger sense, of the Pakistani state. Security agency officials in covert posts seem to wield more liberty in individual missions than do career diplomats. Ambassador Humayun Khan, a career diplomat who also served as foreign secretary, states, “Technically speaking, all embassy personnel are under the Head of Mission, but these covert officers report directly to their own superiors and are not obliged to take the ambassador into their confidence. These covert officers have begun to report on fellow members of the embassy, which is not a healthy trend.”[7] Thus unlike in military endeavors, the autonomy of diplomatic undertakings is compromised due to close scrutiny.

Against the backdrop of this power dynamic, the debate about the merits of hiring career diplomats or political appointees as ambassadors for Pakistan adds another dimension to our conversation. Politically appointed ambassadors are hardly welcome by career diplomats because such nominations not only impede the professional development of career diplomats, but also lower the overall morale of the Foreign Office.[8] However, political appointees are sometimes considered to be effective by their own government and by the country of their assignment, both because they have direct access to the head of state and because of their (supposed) lack of concern for their own careers in diplomacy. They are, in general, empowered to make bold decisions on diplomatic initiatives, unlike career diplomats. They are also better placed to override the scrutiny of security agencies.[9] General Asad Durrani, former ISI chief and ambassador to Germany, so candidly puts it: "Assuming that a political appointee was close to the country's leadership, he or she should be able to withstand such interference much better, more so because such individuals do not have to make a career in the service."[10]

The overseeing role of the Pakistani military establishment has and will continue to hamper the institutional development of the Foreign Office. For a country that faces severe internal and external challenges, Pakistan needs its core diplomatic institution to be capable of shaping the course of its foreign policy in a way that enhances national over particular interests now more than ever.



[1] Numerous private interviews. July 2015.

[2] Senator Mushahid Hussain. Private interview. 16 July 2015.

[3] General Zia wanted to ensure that power was handed over to pro-Pakistan Mujahedeen after the Soviet withdrawal.

[4] Owen Bennet Jones. Private interview. 15 July 2015.

[5] Ambassador Wajid Shamsul Hasan. Private interview. 7 July 2015.

[6] Ahmed Rashid. Private interview. 1 August 2015.

[7] Ambassador Humayun Khan, former Foreign Secretary. Private interview. 26 July 2015.

[8] Ambassador Humayun Khan, former Foreign Secretary. Private interview. 26 July 2015.

[9] Ambassador Wajid Shamsul Hasan. Private interview. 7 July 2015.

[10] General Asad Durrani. Private interview. 13 July 2015.