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Can Pakistan’s chic Foreign Minister deliver the goods?
By Thanapathi
Last week marked a new phase in attempts to resolve the generations old conflict between India and Pakistan. Coming just days after the devastating blast in Mumbai that killed 19 people the foreign ministers of the two countries sounded optimistic at the very least for being able to come together for negotiations. In the final analysis nothing substantive or ground breaking was achieved in talks last week between India’s minister of external affairs S. M. Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Ms. Hina Rabani Khar. Yet the very fact they met was hailed as a success and a ‘step in the right direction’.

The peace talks between two countries, which were initiated in 2004, were suspended after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack that claimed 166 lives. Post Mumbai terror attack, the two countries were struggling to come on track. Expectations of a breakthrough in peace talks have been low, but the fact the South Asian rivals are talking was a sign that neither side wants to slide back toward conflict.

Last Wednesday’s meeting between Krishna and Khar in New Delhi, can be seen as a forward movement in the relations between two arch rivals, given the acrimony two countries are caught in. Soon after the meeting, the ministers turned up for a joint briefing, saying relations between their countries were on the right track and they have agreed on counter-terrorism cooperation and resolving contentious issues.
The comments from the two foreign ministers were unexpectedly positive and may be a small step toward improving regional stability, made more urgent with a U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan looming. Both sides also discussed Kashmir and decided to carry forward the discussions on the complex issue in a comprehensive manner. There was an agreement to increase cross border trade across Line of Control which divides the troubled province between India and Pakistan.

The glamour FM
Yet the headlines of the meeting were not grabbed by the issues that were discussed or the decisions that were made but by the young and glamorous foreign minister of Paksitan. Foreign Policy Magazine called her “Pakistan’s glamorous new WMD”, the 34-year-old foreign minister Ms. Hina Rabani Khar. The Indian media also were smitten by Pakistan’s youngest ever foreign minister. Her diplomatic skills apart, Ms. Khar got high marks for her sense of fashion, a whole new development for a visiting Pakistani foreign minister. It was not missed that she touched down on Indian soil wearing Roberto Cavalli sunglasses, classic pearl and diamond jewellery, a blue designer dress, while toting a designer handbag.

Ms. Khar was born in 1977 and is the daughter of politician Ghulam Noor Rabbani Khar and niece of Ghulam Mustafa Khar. A businesswoman by profession, she has a master’s degree in Hotel Managemnet. Hina’s family has roots in Punjab and has strong links to the political establishment which has assured her meteorite rise to power. She was first elected to the National Assembly from the Pakistan Muslim League in 2002 and served as the State Minister for Economic Affairs and Statistics in the cabinet of Yousaf Raza Gillani.
On 13 June, 2009 she became the first woman to present a budget speech in the National Assembly. Yet her appointment as foreign minister this year has created quite a stir in Pakistan. She has made news not only because of her age and her status as Pakistan’s first woman foreign minister, but because of her absolute lack of experience in foreign policy or diplomacy.
Whether Hina Rabbani Khar stays in the news will now hinge on how she performs in the international arena, particularly in the handling of bilateral talks with her Indian counterparts. She has so far kept to the script but whether this novice could command the respect of a well groomed Indian establishment with its highly professional foreign service is yet to be decided. Also whether she can bring home results from these talks is also something to watch for. Photo opportunities apart diplomatic negotiations are a high skill business usually carried out with trained and groomed professionals well versed in the nuances of their trade.

Can she deliver?
At least the appointment of Khar has managed to soften her country’s image which had taken a beating at home and overseas, especially due to escalating tensions with the United States over the killing of Osama bin Laden in May. In Pakistan many were surprised by President Asif Ali Zardari’s choice of foreign minister, a position usually reserved for a well experienced senior politician who can handle the intricacies of the numerous tight ropes that Pakistan has to walk in the international sphere.
Today Pakistan’s foreign policy stands at cross roads. After nearly a decade of backing the US the latter’s ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan that crucial relationship is at its lowest ebb in recent memory. US law makers have recently curtailed funding for Pakistan fearing that it is not serious about curbing Taliban activities in Afghanistan. The delicate balancing act that Pakistan plays with China, its ‘all weather friend’ is also of significance.
Since the Bin Laden raid Pakistani leaders have been making visible gestures towards China to counter the pressure from the US to do more in the terrorism front. Pakistani defence minister Ahmed Mukhtar reportedly requested in May that the Chinese build a naval base adjoining the newly constructed Gwadar port. Though meant mainly as a publicity stunt to get the attention of the US and India the news was received with astonishment in many security circles.

Here lies the challenge for newly appointed foreign minister. Her youth and glamour aside will she be able to tell the likes of Mukhtar to keep their mouths shut on sensitive issues such as Chinese interventions in the Indian Ocean and the repercussions for Pakistan’s relations with its other allies? Will the powerful military of Pakistan, and more importantly its intelligence wing the ISI be able to take the foreign minister’s concerns seriously when it comes to their actions in Afghanistan and India?

The ISI stands accused for backing the Mumbai attacks of 2008 and continuously supporting Jihadist groups in Afghanistan including the Taliban. Because of these actions Pakistan’s relations with the US, Europe and India have suffered tremendously since it appears to be soft on terrorism while western troops are dying in Afghanistan to fight the very same people that are supposedly backed by the ISI. A foreign minister with a force of character and leadership is absolutely required to bring about a balance to the India- centric Pakistan military which often works on its own agenda against concerns of Pakistan’s vital allies.
Pakistan’s president has taken a massive gamble by appointing Ms. Hina Rabani Khar as foreign minister. Her youth, good looks and glamour will get her impressive headlines and even a cover page on Vogue. Yet when it comes to the reality her performance may mean the difference between protracted conflict or lasting peace in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
The inexperienced graduate of hotel management needs to show that she’s capable of delivering on substance after just as forcefully as she delivered the initial charm offensive.