Pakistan’s Budding Kissinger


“The elected government of President Zardari appoints an optician-turned-foreign policy expert Nasir Ali Khan as Ambassador at Large who has visited 25 countries in 24 months costing 15 million. His credentials? Played marbles with Shah Mehmood Qureshi at school”.

by ZAFAR HILALY | Thursday | 23 December 2010 | The News International

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—To support the travel expenses of a Mr Nasir Ali Khan, an optician turned foreign affairs expert, now Ambassador at Large, probably takes a hundred fold as much money as it does to support the life of a common man.

Statistics to this effect were revealed in the National Assembly yesterday, in response to a question by a member of the opposition. Apparently in the space of 24 months Mr Nasir Ali Khan had visited 25 countries, some more than once, spending a total of 156 days outside the country at a cost of 15 million rupees to the national exchequer. On one trip to the US he stayed abroad on ‘assignment’ for as long as 18 days. That, apparently, is a record which is unequalled by any president, prime minister or foreign minister and one that will in all probability remain unchallenged.

It would have been interesting if MNA Nighat Saleem, who asked the question in parliament, would have followed up the government’s response by asking precisely what was the purpose of the Ambassador at Large’s mission to Trinidad and Tobago. I must confess that after a sleepless night I am still unable to think of one unless he was representing the Islamic Republic at a Reggae fest. 

On reading the government’s response I rang up some serving and retired contacts to ask them who exactly this budding Kissinger was and why was he being shielded from public eye almost as much as our nuclear assets. Guffaws of laughter greeted my questions. “Don’t you know? He’s a bum-chum of Shah Mehmood Qureshi since their school days,” said one and all. Not believing that our foreign minister had assigned this particular gentleman a spanking new office at the prestigious third floor of the Foreign Office, and insisted on being accompanied by him on his visits abroad only because they had played marbles at school, I decided to snoop around. But snoop as much as I did, I discovered nothing to suggest otherwise.

It then occurred to me that I must be looking in the wrong place and asked one of the most prominent and widely respected Pakistani journalists in Islamabad, who is also a columnist for several major international newspapers, whether he had met our ‘Kissinger’ or heard him dilate on foreign affairs and what he thought of him. Except relating he confirmed that he had met Mr Nasir Ali Khan the rest of what he said is unprintable.

Never having met the Ambassador at Large personally, or heard him speak, on or off the record, or having read a word that he had written, I can’t swear that it he is as clueless about his new job as is being alleged but, alas, one feels that he may be. In this regime, as we have discovered to our cost time and time again, there is simply no criterion to fill a post. Anyone can be slotted for any job. Appointments are made on the basis of blood relations, friendship, larceny and what have you. The disdain for qualifications, experience, aptitude, performance, merit, abounds with the candidate’s lust for office, backed by lucre, often proving decisive.

Of the ambassadors at large appointed by this regime, one used to be a computer operator at the World Bank; another was a restaurant owner in Dubai; a third had no fixed vocation and alarmingly no fixed address. Apparently there are more of whom one does not hear perhaps because they violated their bail bonds. Of course, the professions identified are perfectly respectable ones except that they are as far removed from the craft of diplomacy as this government’s concern is for merit. 
About the only ambassador at large today, who has any experience of diplomacy, is Ambassador Zia Ispahani but unfortunately his experience was only judged sufficient for a solitary mission in the past two years, in stark contrast to the 30 assigned to Mr Nasir Ali Khan, the optician. Considering that on most of his ‘missions’ the foreign minister was also with him, one wonders what Mr Nasir’s actual tasks were apart from being a factotum. And again, on this score too there is much lurid speculation in Islamabad.

For a government to be perceived as having the right man for the job adds to its stature and, of course, its performance; and the opposite is true when fools seem to be in an overwhelming majority. In her second term, some of BB’s advisers realising the politician’s proclivity to get carried away by considerations other than qualifications, experience, aptitude, performance and merit, suggested that she confine her selection to top posts in the bureaucracy from a shortlist of three provided by a select group of advisers headed by a very experienced former civil servant. BB would have none of it.

Politicians as a rule don’t like their freedom to appoint, and sometimes anoint who they wish circumscribed by rules or even common sense. They love to flaunt their power. After suffering as much as they do, in the form of beatings, jail and torture when out of office, they hate being told that some or other rule prevents them from savoring their victory and appointing whoever they wish to a job.

Just because the public has, for the moment, preferred their wisdom to that of their opponents they think they know best, and even though one of them paid for it with his life and BB’s choices on occasions turned out to be wrong it’s a habit that dies hard, as the Zardari-Gilani duo have amply demonstrated in their choice of candidates to fill important posts. Of course the performance of their opponents has been no better.

Pakistan is one of those rare semi-functional democracies where legally the president/prime minister can go off walking on the hills around his mansion in Islamabad and return with an ambassador designate in tow. All he has to do before taking his shower is to sign a note purporting to ‘be pleased to appoint’ him as one.

And that, by the looks of it, is how the current duo functions, except on the occasion when they spotted our peripatetic Ambassador at Large they were accompanied on their walk by the foreign minister who seems to have prevailed upon them to let his school chum join his diplomatic forays.


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