ISLAMABAD - Pakistan’s ambassador-designate to US Jalil Abbas Jilani who is all set to leave for Washington on Friday to take charge of his new challenging assignment says his top priorities as the new envoy will be to build on the positive momentum, promotion of trade and economic cooperation as well as improving consular services.
“My foremost priority in Washington will be to build on the positive momentum and strengthen Pakistan-US relations to make them truly reflective of the mutual desire to continue with the ongoing security cooperation while expanding cooperation in economic, trade, education, health, energy, and science and technology sectors,” Ambassador-designate Jilani told The Nation in an exclusive interview the other day.
Pointing out that the first directive from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to all of Pakistan’s diplomatic missions is to pursue trade and economic relations with the countries of their accreditation, he declares: “I will pursue that directive in letter and spirit.”
On arrival Ambassador-designate Jilani will present a copy of his credentials to the US State Department. This will be his third ambassadorial posting after Brussels and Australia. “It would also be my endeavour to increase the embassy’s interaction with the Pakistani community besides providing quality consular services,” he adds. Jilani who has served in Washington from 1995 to 1999, first as the minister and then as the deputy head of the mission notes: “Pakistan-American community has played a formidable role in serving the country of their birth by projecting a positive image.”
The top diplomatic slot in Washington fell vacant in May this year when the PPP-appointed former ambassador Sherry Rehman relinquished charge after resigning from the post. Jilani was nominated as ambassador to the US in October, shortly before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first bilateral visit to the US and his meeting with President Barrack Obama on October 23.
As the foreign secretary, Jilani participated in the important bilateral talks that marked the resumption of the stalled Pakistan-US Strategic Dialogue.
A major challenge he sees for himself in Washington a diplomatically and strategically very significant capital for Islamabad would be to improve understanding of Pakistan’s policies and remove misgivings about a number of issues in certain sections of the US society, particularly the lawmakers.
“There is a need to promote a positive narrative about Pakistan so that they do not look at Pakistan from the old prism particularly vis-à-vis Afghanistan.” His attempt would, therefore, be to engage the US Congress representatives to make them appreciate Pakistan’s genuine national security concerns, including its position on drones.
“While we need to stay engaged, it is important that both countries respect redlines and each other’s limitations,” is how he sums it up.
When Jilani took over as foreign secretary in March 2012, Pakistan was confronted with major foreign policy challenges: relations with the US were at the lowest ebb following the US deadly attack on the Salala post; ties with Afghanistan were in high strain with Kabul regularly accusing Pakistan of supporting the Taliban and the situation with India was not comfortable either. As the foreign secretary, he was thus closely associated with the negotiations at the highest level to put troubled bilateral ties back on track with all these countries.
Jilani headed the Pakistan-Afghanistan US core group activated in 2012 on the initiative of the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Marc Grossman to improve interaction in advancing the Afghan reconciliation process.
Consequently, ‘safe passage group’ and ‘delisting group’ were established to facilitate travel of the Taliban willing to engage in the Afghan peace and reconciliation process. This led to initiation of the track 11 Doha process paving way for important interaction with the Taliban groups in various countries, including Germany, Japan and France. However, the process was disrupted after President Karzai felt he was being sidelined and declared that track-11 dialogue with the Taliban should take place only in Afghanistan.
Ambassador-designate Jilani who will relinquish charge as the country’s 27th foreign secretary on Thursday (today) sounds satisfied with Pakistan’s proactive diplomatic engagement that, according to his assessment, has led to considerable improvement in overall bilateral relations.
Recounting the positive moves on the foreign policy front during his tenure as head of the country’s lead institution, he points to improvement in relations with the US and key neighbouring countries, including Afghanistan, India, Iran and Turkey. He says there is a “new depth” in relations with China and Turkey. He believes increased high-level interaction with the new government in Iran will further improve ties between the two neighbouring countries in the coming days. He foresees increased interaction at all levels and progress on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project.
The outgoing foreign secretary believes that due to the policies being pursued by Pakistan it is now generally getting less negative press internationally. Islamabad’s efforts to advance peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan are being recognised by the world community and Kabul itself, notes Jilani who has regularly briefed parliamentary committees on foreign policy concerns and assisted the Supreme Court with its queries on a host of issues. On the Syrian crisis, he maintains Pakistan took a principled position which was also subsequently vindicated.
Jilani who led the second round of Composite Dialogue with his Indian counterpart in Delhi July last year views the meeting of the DGMOs this week as a positive development.
When in Delhi for the talks last year, the then BJP President LK Advani who as deputy prime minister had expelled Jilani from India in 2003, invited him over to his residence for an informal meeting with his family. Ironically, while Jilani was enjoying the hospitality of Advani and his family a senior BJP leader, Yashwant Sinha, was blasting the ruling Congress party for “rolling out a red carpet” for Jilani on an Indian TV talk show.
Commenting on the administrative aspect of the foreign service, Jilani says he tried his utmost to resist political interference in postings and transfers besides striving to ensure merit was not side-stepped, even if it meant unpleasant exchanges.
Jilani’s advice to his successor Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry is to uphold this important legacy and guard against the ‘sifarish’ culture that is demoralising for the career officers.
However, on the question of reversals of key diplomatic appointments, he remains tight-lipped. He defends extension in service given recently to Pakistan’s envoys in Geneva and Turkey. Jilani argues that change at this point would not have been “in the national interest” as both envoys are engaged in key multilateral and bilateral negotiations on issues of importance to Pakistan.
Ambassador-designate Jalil Abbas Jilani, 58, joined the Foreign Service of Pakistan in 1979 and has previously served in London, New Delhi and Brussels. At the headquarters, he served as DG South Asia Division & SAARC, spokesperson briefly besides his assignment as deputy secretary at the PM Secretariat.