Military Puppet. Or Rising Star?
By Rubab Shirazi for Tehelka Magazine
If The unfolding political crisis in Pakistan does not upset junior foreign and economic affairs minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s elevation as full-fledged foreign minister, she appears all set to travel to New Delhi for meeting her Indian counterpart SM Krishna this month for the ministerial meeting of the resumed dialogue process. Her promotion is needed to remove the protocol hitch for the ministerial meeting.
When Khar, 34, became the minister of state for foreign affairs in February, hardly any eyebrows were raised — more so because the ceremonial position has been used since 2004 to accommodate scions of influential families in the Federal Cabinet. Khar’s entry was instead seen as a bid by the government to prioritise the economic aspect in its diplomacy.
But the news of her elevation was met with strong criticism because she was seen as being too young and raw to handle complex foreign policy issues, even though she had been part of the Cabinet since 2004. For a good part of her political career, which started with her election as member of the National Assembly in 2003, Khar has been a low-key politician.
In a country that already has an accidental president (Asif Ali Zardari) and prime minister (Yousuf Raza Gilani), it wouldn’t be a surprise if the foreign minister is also accidental. If things go as planned, she would take oath this month as Pakistan’s 26th foreign minister and bag the honour of being the first woman to hold the post. But, Foreign Office (FO) bureaucrats, who derisively refer to her as “the girl” in private, say that she is no match for most who have occupied this crucial post.
Khar comes from a privileged background, being the daughter of well-known politician Ghulam Noor Rabbani Khar and niece of infamous playboy and former Punjab governor Ghulam Mustafa Khar. The latter’s wife Tehmina Durrani wrote My Feudal Lord, which caused controversy by describing her abusive and traumatic marriage with Ghulam Mustafa and her experience of life in a patriarchal society. Despite her feudal upbringing, Khar graduated from Pakistan’s best business school, Lahore University of Management Sciences and obtained her masters in hospitality from the University of Massachusetts.
Khar’s likely appointment is coming at a time when the country’s foreign relations are not in the best of shape — the alliance with the US is withering away fast; cross-border controversies are marring Pak-Afghan bonhomie; and though the Indo-Pakistan dialogue is progressing, the Thimphu spirit is fading as indicated by recent bilateral meetings.
Even if Khar succeeds in getting the post, diplomatic observers think she will not be the real decision maker — the power would still lie with the military. Having an inexperienced person like Khar as the FO boss, who would depend heavily on bureaucracy for policy as well as administrative matters, suits the military establishment at Rawalpindi GHQ in maintaining its control over Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Unlike her predecessor Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who lost his job for taking a hardline position on immunity for CIA operative Raymond Davis (involved in fatally shooting two youth in January), Khar isn’t thought to be independent minded.
No one at the FO knows about Khar’s views on important issues like relations with the US, Europe, India, Afghanistan and about the War on Terror. She hasn’t given any interviews or delivered speeches on foreign policy ever since she moved to the FO in February, even though she was the de facto boss during this time.
Though much has been written about her meteoric rise in politics, she still remains an enigma. Her credentials for being considered for the crucial post are her two stints as minister of state for economic affairs; a brief assignment as special assistant to the prime minister on finance, revenue and economic affairs; and more lately her FO job.
No one knows Khar’s views on important issues like the war on terror, Indo-Pak relations, or the strained partnership with the US
According to her curriculum vitae, foreign affairs was not a subject of interest until lately. She avows interest in finance, economic affairs and agriculture development. But, quite contrary to her fondness for the three subjects, she runs an upscale restaurant in Lahore. Her husband Feroze Gulzar is a textile industrialist. For most of her career, Khar had been dealing with international loans and grants. Foreign Service officials, who don’t want to be named, caution that real-time diplomacy is a different ball game.
Administrative chaos at the FO, another officer says, grew under the overachieving lady, who had been promoted by the PPP government as an astute manager. Khar was responsible for economic affairs during Gen Pervez Musharraf’s regime. Economic mismanagement turned out to be the major cause of the defeat of her previous party, PML(Q), in the 2008 elections. Fearing that she wouldn’t be given a party ticket, she changed her loyalties weeks before the polls and joined the PPP.
IF SUCCESSFUL in achieving the prized foreign ministership, it would not be the first time she would be filling someone’s shoes. In 2003, she contested elections in place of her father, who couldn’t run for National Assembly as he was not a graduate; in 2009 she became the first woman minister to present the federal budget because former finance minister Shaukat Tarin was not an elected Parliamentarian.
Her inexperience aside, party colleagues say that Khar is deceptively wily and ambitious as they point to how she smartly outmanoeuvered other contenders in the race for the foreign ministry, including former law minister Babar Awan, former foreign minister Sardar Assef Ali and National Assembly speaker Dr Fehmida Mirza — all political heavyweights.
One of her weaknesses is that she isn’t a media darling. Searching online for her interviews turns up a little-known Saturday Post article, that too dated several years ago. On this count, she would turn out to be a weak and ineffectual representative of her country’s foreign policy. In her first media appearance alongside a visiting US functionary Thomas Nides, Khar was unimpressive. Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir hurriedly scripted a few lines for her to deliver before PTV cameras, but according to one official, she struggled with it. Days later, when speaking to the media alongside UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, when she was asked about the prospects of a peace deal with Afghan Taliban, Khar started speaking about a failed peace deal with militants in Swat to prove Islamabad’s commitment to peace with militants. Pakistan, she probably forgot, does not equate Afghan and local Taliban. The government has been treating the two entities differently.
Online discussion boards have been filled with negative comments on her expected elevation. “What a farce. We are at one of the most critical junctures in our foreign affairs, so we decide to hand out perhaps the most important portfolio to a 34-year-old with a degree in hospitality management!” reads a posting on a discussion platform called Pakistan Defense.
What goes in her favour is that apart from allegations by her critics of tax evasion, something normal for a Pakistani politician, she has no major controversies attached to her name.