ISLAMABAD - There is no end to diplomats jockeying for extension in service at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to retain key positions as they reach superannuation and governments continue to grant the favour at the expense of blocking career path of many competent officers.

The PML-N government appears to be no exception despite earlier assurances that it will take a firm stand against this self-serving culture of career officers continuing beyond superannuation.

Currently, Pakistan’s Permanent Representation to UN Mission in New York, Masood Khan, is on extension and so is Pakistan High Commissioner to India Salman Bashir. Both were given extension prior to PML-N’s taking charge of the federal government.

The present government went back on its word most recently when it granted one-year extension to Ambassador Zamir Akram, permanent representative to UN Mission in Geneva. It has also granted extensions to Ambassador to Turkey Haroon Shaukat and Ambassador to EU Munawar Saeed Bhatti. However, Bhatti’s return has been delayed solely for health reasons.

Earlier, Ambassador to Denmark Fauzia Abbas was obliged with a third extension. Apparently, she is now seeking a fourth one. Reportedly, she flew to New York last month to pursue her case directly with the PM and that too without informing the Foreign Office.

Extension in service to the Foreign Ministry officials is granted on approval by the prime minister. The morale of officers at MOFA is down. They are disillusioned, particularly disappointed, with Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi himself a former career diplomat, who had at the outset given them his word that he would oppose extension for any officer tooth and nail and that the MOFA would not support such a move.

Apparently, one of the first things Fatemi had done after assuming the office was to send letters to all ambassadors, categorically stating that the Foreign Office would not recommend any extension in service, so those aspiring for it should desist from it. Also at the Foreign Office he called a meeting of the officers, including directors and DGs, and told them that the PM was committed to rewarding professionalism and hard work. Of the various assurances given, one was that a mechanism would be evolved to ensure timely promotion and recognition of officers.

However, Fatemi’s assurances seem to have fallen flat in less than four months and officers at the ministry are wondering what happened to the resolve that had given them hope of finally getting rid of this major irritant plaguing the Foreign Service.

Officers are resentful at this practice that continues to have political patronage and in some cases backing of the military establishment. Strings are pulled from Islamabad to Rawalpindi in the corridors of civil and military leadership to get the green light for usurping the rights of the officers next in line.

Officers at the MOFA hope that the prime minister will resist political pressures and will not be influenced by the civil and military establishment on this important matter that leaves a negative impact on the future of career diplomats. They also hope he will not sacrifice his pledge to safeguard professionalism at the altar of expediency.

Each extension the government grants denies several officers their timely promotion as it slows down the entire process of promotions. Foreign Office promotions are known to be the most delayed and batch mates of those working as directors at the FO are said to be working as deputy/joint secretaries in other services.

Though every person joining the Foreign Service knows the exact date of his or her retirement, even after decades of service some never seem to be prepared enough or rather willing to call it a day. Many officers are reluctant to make an honourable exit on retirement to clear way for their equally able colleagues and start pulling strings in the power corridors for securing extension in service.

Notably, with the sole exception of one woman career diplomat, no female officer has ever sought extension in service. However, male officers have an inherent tendency not to step down when their time to retire approaches. Some of them use influence of the ruling elite or military establishment to prolong their service.

The extension culture blossomed under the Musharraf regime that granted wholesale extensions to Foreign Ministry officials. Several serving and retired Pakistani diplomats recall that the ministry never saw such massive extensions as they had under the Musharraf government. At one given time dozen diplomats getting extensions occupied key slots, making MOFA seem more like a ministry of extension affairs.

While grant of extension in service may be understandable in rare cases of career diplomats having demonstrated exceptional qualities or when critical factors like compassionate grounds are at play, there is no justification for it from a purely professional or legal standpoint. Clearly, there is no dearth of competent and committed diplomats in the ministry, who have been trained for years. The unhealthy trend of extension kills the spirit and initiative of promising career officers and ought to be checked on this score alone.

In case the trend of granting extensions to senior officers is indicative of utility of their services after their superannuation, it will be fair only if each diplomat is given equal opportunity and the way of ensuring that would be to raise the retirement age back to 62.

However, as a nation, we need to abandon the convenient cushion of ‘doctrine of necessity’ that perpetuates such practices in any government or state service – civil or military bureaucracy – that are likely to weaken institutions. This country, its people and its public servants need hope and that can stem from credibility and fair play. The Prime Minister and his experienced aides could perhaps begin by establishing their credibility in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by delivering on the assurances they have given so far.