ISLAMABAD - Confusion and uncertainty prevails at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) with the government constantly erring and taking U-turns on key diplomatic appointments. This has virtually turned appointments at the country’s premier institution into a game of musical chairs and placed certain senior career diplomats in awkward if not embarrassing situation.

The mishandling of nominations starting with the top slot at the MOFA to high-profile ambassadorial posts in India, the UK and the EU, is evinced by the fact that within less than two months they were all overturned by the same government. The irony of it all is that the initial nominations for these posts were approved by the PM after prolonged consultations with his inner circle presumably to pick the ‘best candidates’, and decisions were reversed after nomination papers had been despatched to the host states and their consent received. All this has left career officers confused and demoralised. Most wonder who among the three top Foreign Ministry heavyweights are the architects of this mayhem.

Currently, the foreign secretary, the adviser on national security and foreign affairs and special assistant on foreign affairs to the PM advise Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the matters related to the ministry. Obviously, in certain cases the PM himself decides on the postings.

At first there was this prolonged period of indecision on these major appointments and when the government woke up to it and named diplomats for these slots, the principle of merit and seniority was clearly ignored in certain cases.

On October 9, the prime minister personally conveyed to a number of senior MOFA officers his approval for their new diplomatic assignments. Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani was informed that he was being named the ambassador to the US while Abdul Basit, ambassador to Germany who was specially called in by the Foreign Office from Berlin, was given the good news that he would replace Jilani. Additional Foreign Secretary Ibne Abbas was also introduced to the PM by his special assistant on foreign affairs and told that he would be the next high commissioner to India.

Pakistan’s very competent ambassador to Italy, Tehmina Janjua, was also called in from Rome and introduced to the PM on October 9 as the Foreign Office’s candidate for the high-profile diplomatic post of Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN Mission in New York. However, reportedly, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, an outstanding diplomat with a global standing and Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US and the UK, was picked for the prized slot.

The news of important diplomatic reshuffle was splashed all over and grabbed headlines in the media. On October10, there was another ‘breaking news’ regarding an important diplomatic appointment – that of the high commissioner to the UK and it was reported that the government had decided to assign this post to Kamran Shafi. However, that decision has been reversed just like the assignments chosen for Ambassador Abdul Basit, Additional Foreign Secretary Ibne Abbas and Spokesperson Aizaz Ahmed who had been nominated for the top slot in Brussels.

The quick reversals of most of nominations and major reshuffles constantly on the cards show that these were not well-through decisions. That the PM was ill advised by his foreign policy team or whoever advises him on this front. These developments have led to the general perception that someone in his team, if not the prime minister himself, has just got something quite wrong.

The latest now is that Abdul Basit will not be recalled from Germany to head the MOFA as decided earlier, but will be re-designated as the new high commissioner to India instead of Ibne Abbas. There was speculation earlier that Ambassador Basit might be given the office of the high commissioner to the UK. His senior colleague, Additional Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed, a seasoned diplomat, is now set to replace outgoing Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani. However, nothing is official yet.

Apparently, the PM and his key aides have once again put their heads together to finalise diplomatic appointments. Obviously nothing is final until it actually happens.

The MOFA has never in its entire history witnessed such fickle mindedness in key diplomatic appointments as under the present PML-N-led administration. The decision to nominate Abdul Basit for the office of the foreign secretary even before his promotion to grade 22, a prerequisite for the appointment, was a case of putting the cart before the horse. Clearly, the PM who holds the portfolio of foreign minister has three advisers, two political and one bureaucrat, to guide him. The buck still stops at the PM himself.

As a consequence of the unprecedented confusion prevailing at the MOFA, many senior officials waiting for promotions and their next diplomatic assignments remain clueless about where they are headed. There is no clarity as to which of the big three at the ministry – the foreign secretary, the adviser to PM on national security and the special assistant to PM – is calling the shots. There is an impression that all heads are calling shots at the same time causing senior officers to be demoralised in collateral damage.

The decision to appoint Abdul Basit is nothing short of a comedy of errors that led to a competent officer being resented and embarrassed. He figured ninth in the seniority list and the decision was perceived as a result of political patronage as well as bad advice. It violated the merit-based criterion for all appointments that the PML-N government had been so vociferously advocating, merit in this case being seniority of the officer. Better sense prevailed only when it sunk in that this decision could be challenged in a court of law. And this happened only when the Establishment Division pointed out last year’s Supreme Court ruling to the effect that appointments had to be made in accordance with the law, discretion had to be exercised in a structured and transparent manner and any exception to the general rule was liable to judicial review by the courts.

For now the only thing that seems certain at the MOFA is that the outgoing Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jillani will head to Washington on December 25 to take charge as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US.

Meanwhile, the key question still remains who is responsible for creating this royal confusion. Will that person or persons be held accountable to avoid bizarre handling of major diplomatic appointments in future?

The appointments saga presents a case for the Prime Minister to take charge and ensure that the country’s front line ministry engaging with the world does not become a subject of ridicule and endless speculation. Having retained the Foreign Affairs portfolio, the Prime Minister needs to make sure that the ministry that tells the Pakistan story does not become a story itself.