By Salman Bashir
On April 17th, Sohail Mahmood, a career diplomat, replaced Tehmina Janjua as foreign secretary of Pakistan. Janjua retired after a long and distinguished career, with the unique honour of being the first woman chief of the country’s foreign office. She served during a change of government at home and testing times in Pakistan’s relationship with India, especially in February this year — when the two nuclear armed rivals came to the brink of an all out war.
Janjua has also played a constructive role in facilitating and supporting the Afghan peace process during a particularly challenging time in regional and bilateral relations.
Her successor, Mahmood, served inter alia as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Thailand and Turkey, and as high commissioner to India. He is well respected by his colleagues who consider him a competent officer with remarkable qualities of head and heart.
During his tenure as chief envoy to India, Mahmood demonstrated exemplary diplomatic maturity and kept communication channels between the two countries open even when tensions escalated. In Indian diplomatic circles, his acumen and sense of propriety are regarded with great respect. This is no small achievement, and a true diplomatic privilege that only the most able of us ever earn.
In his parting message to India on April 14th, Mahmood said that Pakistan believes diplomacy and dialogue are the way forward for both countries. He spoke of the need for sustained and structured dialogue to bridge perceptional differences and to understand each other’s positions better. In an era of proliferating crises and polarization, it is necessary to have credible, well-trusted interlocutors on both sides. Mahmood is exactly that man; in him, the Indian ministry of external affairs will have a trusted interlocutor in our foreign service.
ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) hard-line views on Pakistan, the hope is
that if it is re-elected, it will work to create domestic political space for
engagement. Despite the BJP’s political belligerency, Imran Khan has
consistently placed a high premium on improving relations with India.
And so it is hoped that when Delhi emerges from the throes of its general election, the new government will see merit in repairing bilateral relations with Pakistan. In this age of global turbulence, an assured safety among neighbors must become a priority.
It is vital for peace in South Asia that new cold war rigidities are not superimposed on an already fragile regional security situation. Otherwise, over a billion poor people from this region will be condemned to remain victims of global politics; an arena where they have no reach and little voice.
The new foreign secretary will also have to oversee and manage relations with Afghanistan where the prospects of political settlement are both complex and uncertain.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan’s dilemma exists in its desire to be distant from local political Afghan squabbles. But at the same time, with its closeness in geography, history, cultural and ethnic affinities, it does not want to be regarded as an impartial entity. The Afghanistan end-game, as far as the US is concerned, will be closely watched and concerns about Kabul reverting to internal civil strife and power grabbing will be assuaged only through the indirect persuasion of major powers and its contiguous neighbors.
Managing Pakistan’s relations with major powers especially the US will be a big challenge for the incoming foreign secretary because Washington’s interests in the region are no longer well-defined. For the US, the predominant priority of the times is China and that is the pivot for its Indo-Pacific strategy.
On the whole, Mahmood will find himself in the vortex of at least some seemingly impossible situations and will be required to balance equations that are the product of global and regional power politics. This will require both imagination and competence and of course hard work and diligence. If his time in the diplomatic service has proved one thing, it is that he has the qualities and the experience to take these challenges head on.
(Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb)