Pakistan’s weapon of mass distraction

The new foreign minister is young, female and stylish—cause for celebration and controversy
Cynthia Reynolds
Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar speaks to the press as she arrives at Air Force station in New Delhi on July 26, 2011. Top diplomats from India and Pakistan met in New Delhi to prepare the ground for the first foreign minister peace talks in a year between the nuclear-armed neighbours. AFP PHOTO/Prakash SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
Weapon of mass distraction
Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

The appointment of Pakistan’s new foreign minister is dividing opinion across the conservative nation. Hina Rabbani Khar is the first woman to ever hold the position in that country and, at 34, she’s also the youngest. While some argue her selection is a sign of hope for a new, more moderate direction for the hardline nation, others see the appointment of the wealthy businesswoman—and a member of a powerful Punjabi family—as business as usual. Some also consider her vastly inexperienced. Khar, who’s held mostly junior portfolios, slipped into government after a 2002 ruling required politicians to have a college degree; she ran for office after the rule disqualified her veteran politician father. Pakistan’s archrival India, meanwhile, is offering its own take on Khar: for the moment, it appears to have settled on style icon.

During her first official visit to Delhi last month, part of the new efforts to revive relations between the long-time foes, the press had little to say about Khar’s political skills. Instead, the media gushed over her black Hermès Birkin bag, Roberto Cavalli sunglasses, and classic strand of pearls, comparing her to Michelle Obama, Carla Bruni, even Kate Middleton. One columnist referred to her as Pakistan’s “weapon of mass distraction.” It’s not the first time the press has seized upon her image; pictures of her in trendy slim-fitting jeans have raised eyebrows throughout Pakistan, prompting traditionalists to question whether the co-owner of Polo Lounge, a trendy restaurant on downtown Lahore’s polo grounds, is out of touch with the conservative—and poor—country. Regardless, she now helms one of the most volatile relationships in world politics.

Since 1947, the two countries have fought umpteen skirmishes and at least three wars. Another conflict nearly started after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed more than 165, were linked to a Pakistani militant group. The triple bombing in Mumbai earlier this summer, which killed 26, threatened to sour relations again, but no direct link to Pakistan was made and the nascent peace talks—and Khar’s visit to meet with her 79-year-old counterpart S.M. Krishna—went ahead.

Although the Delhi meeting failed to achieve any concrete breakthroughs, both sides agreed the talks were a positive step. Khar, calling it a “new era in bilateral co-operation,” said “a new generation of Indians and Pakistanis will see a relationship that will hopefully be much different from the one that has been experienced in the last two decades.” Suspicion, nonetheless, still underscored her visit: Khar’s choice to meet with Kashmiri separatists before meeting with Krishna irritated Indian officials, and roused skeptics.

The controversy and conjecture over Khar may be largely irrelevant. In Pakistan, the military, not the foreign minister, controls foreign policy. Going forward, analysts will likely be less interested in Khar’s purses and more focused on whether the mother of two intends, unlike her predecessors, to try and wrest power away from the army—a perilous undertaking. In Pakistan, where, since January, two reformist politicians have been assassinated, attempts at reform often end in violence.