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Pakistan appoints first-ever female foreign minister

ISLAMABAD (AFP) ― Pakistan’s first woman foreign minister ― and also its youngest ― was sworn in on Tuesday, ending a five-month job vacancy a week before crucial peace talks in India.

Hina Rabbani Khar, 34, is also expected to meet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the regional ASEAN forum in Indonesia this week.

“On the advice of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the president of Pakistan has decided to elevate Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar as federal minister for foreign affairs,” the foreign ministry said.

“Khar has the distinction of being the youngest and first woman foreign minister of Pakistan.”

Although the assassinated Benazir Bhutto was twice prime minister of Pakistan, senior government positions are usually held by men.

Some analysts have questioned whether Khar has the experience to steer Pakistan’s foreign policy through testing diplomatic times, despite having served as a junior foreign minister for the last five months.

Khar was sworn in by acting President Farooq Naik as head of state Asif Ali Zardari was holding talks in Afghanistan.

She travels to Indonesia later this week for the ASEAN talks, where she is expected to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Clinton, according to the ministry.

“On return, she will proceed to India for the ministerial-level dialogue in the Pakistan-India resumed dialogue process,” it added.

Political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP that Khar’s lack of experience may weigh against her during a particularly delicate foreign policy period for the volatile country.

“Pakistan faces a very difficult international environment and at a time a foreign minister has been appointed who is political lightweight with no experience in this field,” he said.

Askari added that her diplomatic inexperience for what is regarded as the second most important job after prime minister, would cast doubts over the civilian control of foreign policy in the nuclear-armed South Asian country.

“It will further reduce the role of foreign office in foreign policy making and strengthen the impression that foreign policy is made somewhere else,” Askari said.

“She will not be taken seriously at international level.”

Khar, who hails from Punjab’s Muzaffargarh district, served as junior minister for economic affairs under former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

In 2008 elections she joined the Pakistan People’s Party of slain twice-elected Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and was elected an MP, rising to become junior minister of finance before being appointed junior foreign minister five months ago.

Pakistan has had no foreign minister since Shah Mehmood Qureshi was dropped in a cabinet reshuffle in February.

Khar’s elevation to foreign minister comes amid as ongoing tensions with key ally the United States have come to a boil since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden.

The United States suspended military assistance to Pakistan ― about one third of its $2.7 billion annual defense costs ― some two months after bin Laden’s killing near Pakistan’s top military academy.

After the raid, the United States pledged to keep relations steady with Pakistan but U.S. frustration has mounted, including over Islamabad’s decision to oust up to 200 U.S. personnel who planned to train Pakistani forces.

The United States entered an alliance with Pakistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks when Islamabad renounced its support for the hard-line Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan.

Among Khar’s first priorities will be the talks with nuclear-armed arch-rival India, scheduled for July 26 in New Delhi, which will mark the first foreign minister-level talks between the bitter rivals in a year.

India suspended a four-year peace process with Pakistan after attacks in its financial capital Mumbai killed 166 people in November 2008.
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