Governor NWFP Owais Ahmed Ghani
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
PESHAWAR – A year ago, the United States brokered a deal in Pakistan between then-Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf and opposition parties to bring Pakistan back onto the path of real democracy, at the same time returning the military to the “war on terror” front. The goal was to empower the political parties to defeat domestic militancy through consensus and broad-based government, with a civilian president.
This happened to some extent following elections in February 2008 and the subsequent formation of a civilian administration under President Asif Ali Zardari.
However, on the first anniversary of those polls, Pakistan has changed horses in midstream by striking deals with militants and
stopping all military operations against militants. In other words, Pakistan is refusing to fight the American war in the region, as was the grand plan.
On the front line
Pashtun-dominated North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), although the smallest of the four provinces of Pakistan, is center-stage in the struggle against militancy as it borders Afghanistan to the north and the troubled tribal areas to its west.
The man who presides over the province, sitting in Governor’s House in the capital Peshawar, is Owais Ahmad Ghani, previously a successful governor of southwestern Balochistan province and a former trusted lieutenant of Musharraf. He took over in January 2008 after four-and-a-half years in his previous position.
Governor’s House reflects some of the rich history of the Pashtuns; its walls have murals of Alexander the Great’s army in battle as some Pashtuns believe they are descendents of the leader’s Greeks. There is also Koranic calligraphy showing their Muslim legacy.
With his background and given his present position, Ghani is intimately informed of the intricacies of Pakistan’s evolving policy with regard to militants. In an extensive interview with Asia Times Online, he says that the move towards peace deals with militants was not the result of any blackmail or pressure from the side of militants.
Rather, it grew from the realization that the seven-year-long strategy of military operations only aggravated the situation. Now, with peace deals, Pakistan is returning to the pre-1979 setup when, under the aegis of the state, tribes decided their terms of peace through their riwaj (customary laws).
Ghani admits that the situation can at best only be contained as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan. The Taliban and other groups consider this a reason for jihad, and Pakistan territory is used to fuel this cause. Probably the most important peace deal in NWFP is the one concluded in February with militants in the Swat area after two years of fighting.
Asia Times Online: There is a perception of you that you initiate political negotiations, and then follow with military operations. That’s what you did when you were governor of Balochistan, and some say that is why you were brought to NWFP.
Owais Ahmad Ghani: This is a perception that you have from the outside. But let me explain to you in detail. The situation we face has always revolved around this question: Is this a law-and-order issue, or is it an insurgency?
This is the first question I raised when I came here [NWFP]. Law and order is not a protracted activity. It is temporary and there are some immediate issues. It can be criminal issues and it can also be issues of public agitation. For example, against [power] loadshedding, against inflation or political issues.
After some debate we came to the conclusion that this is an insurgency in which there is an attempt to dislodge the state of Pakistan and create space for another state. So we started from this premise. I can today state with a degree of confidence that insurgency has now been downgraded to militancy. But certainly last year in January and February our conclusion was that we were facing an insurgency, and we designed a strategy accordingly.
Now in such a situation there are two concurring battles being fought. One is the battle of ideas. The other is the battle of arms. The battle of ideas is always a lead battle and the battle of arms is always subservient to the battle of ideas. Please understand this.
Here [NWFP] I found a very strange situation in which the battle of arms had been joined, but there was no battle of ideas. The battle of ideas is a political approach. It is the same approach which I have been telling the Americans to adopt in Afghanistan. In 2003-04, I predicted to various American personalities, like ambassadors Ryan Crocker, Nancy Powell, their senators etc, that they were going to fail in Afghanistan because there was an over-emphasis on a military strategy, and I did not see any robust parallel political strategy at work.
I said [to the Americans] that what you are doing is that you are trying to find a military solution to an issue which is essentially political in nature. So that is the mistake happening there that I felt was also happening here [in Pakistan]. That’s why the Americans have fought in Afghanistan for six or seven years, and I keep on asking them whether they have improved law and order – no. Has security improved? No. Has political stability been achieved? No. Has socio-economic development taken off? No. So obviously they were doing something wrong. We need to step back and review as exactly the same questions can be asked of Pakistan.
For three or four years, we [Pakistan] have been fighting in the tribal areas. Have we reduced violence? Have we brought in political stability? Have we brought in security and law and order? Is social economic development taking place? No … no …. no. So let’s step back and let’s review. Where are we going wrong? And according to our analysis – you need to understand this analysis, only then will you be able to understand the strategy – that it is not 9/11, it is 1979, which was the trigger which brought instability to this region.
Before the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there was a two-power environment in the tribal areas. One was the tribes themselves, the other one was the government of Pakistan. The entire administrative system and the law-enforcement system were designed according to this two-power environment.
[In the Pakistani tribal areas] you had the maliks [tribal chiefs], you had the political administration, which I will explain later. However, post the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we were supported by the West and the United States and we used the tribal areas … Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA] … as the launching pad for the Afghan jihad against the Soviet army.
Whatever happened after that is the fallout of an unintended consequence of that conflict. Those jihadi organizations morphed into militant organizations [at the end of the Afghan jihad in 1989] and therefore a third power emerged and the old equilibrium was disturbed.
Our administrative systems and law-enforcing agencies were not designed to cope with this three-power environment. A steady decline was there, but it was the shock of 9/11 which brought out the total inadequacy and the weakness of the system. And therefore as a temporary measure to bring about some control and stability, the army had to be inducted.
But the main challenge is to reform our administrative and law-enforcing systems to cater for this new environment, which is going to remain for some time. This is our reading because everything is dependent on Afghanistan. If a certain degree of normalcy returns to Afghanistan, normalcy according to Afghan standards, only then can the issues the tribal areas and our provinces and Pakistan face subside.
To correct the situation and to bring about stability and control, we fell back on old traditional systems. We had the original power-based tribes, but they had become weakened. Why? For three or four reasons. The militant organizations, they are highly organized because of their background, they are battle-hardened and heavily armed and very well funded. And very importantly, while tribal influence is limited to its own area, its own people, the militant organizations have cross-tribal linkages, cross-border linkages, international linkages. And while tribes are bound by their tribal traditions and customary laws [riwaj], the militant organizations are not. So they have out-gunned, out-funded and out-organized the tribal malik and his tribe, and that’s why that system could not respond.
So our strategy was very simple, we needed to prop up the tribes because the real strength is the people. No government, whether a civilian government or a military government, can really function or succeed until it has brought public support behind it … sentiment behind it.
For us to prop up the tribal system again, this could only be done by weakening the militants, militarily, so that at a certain point we could make the tribes strong enough. This is the basic approach – the state of Pakistan owes its first loyalty to its own citizens, and its own citizens are the tribes.
There were previous agreements, previous to my tenure, but they were flawed. I was sitting in Quetta [as governor of Balochistan] and I said these were flawed and could not succeed because they were between the military and the militants [for example, one signed in September 2006]. The agreements should have been between the government of Pakistan and the tribes.
Our approach has been that it is the government of Pakistan dealing with the tribes and making agreements with the tribes. For example, we have conducted only one written agreement, and that is in North Waziristan [tribal area]. There is no other agreement in my period [as governor of NWFP]. On February 17, 2008, we signed an agreement in North Waziristan. Over 380 tribal maliks and tribal elders signed that agreement.
ATol: Do the tribal elders matter?
OAG: They do. Obviously, we understand that 20-25 of those tribal leaders are very closely aligned with militant elements. I would not call them the Taliban because that has a different connotation altogether. They were with these militants because they were in that society. But we are talking to them on the basis of them being tribal leaders, and they have a certain relationship. Let me explain that relationship.
The tribesmen of FATA are fully fledged Pakistani citizens. They are entitled to a passport, a national ID card, they can join the civil services, the armed forces – they are there from soldier to general. And very importantly, they can own, purchase and manage property anywhere in Pakistan.
However, due to historical reasons, a different politico-administrative system evolved from the old British Empire policy, creating buffers between the advancing Russian imperial army, then as Afghanistan as a buffer with the Russian empire, then the tribal areas as a buffer between the Indian empire and Afghanistan, and the frontier regions as a buffer between the tribal areas and settled districts.
So that created a system of buffers. Each has a slightly different
administrative system. In this there was a political agent whose administrative authority was limited to protected areas, that is, roads and government buildings, and no more. In the rest of the [tribal] areas there are customary laws – riwaj. The political agent is also bound by the riwaj when he operates in those areas, that is why he is called a political agent, he is not an administrative officer. He has to deal with the tribes politically.
Secondly, this is simplified, there is no thana [police station] no katchari [lower courts] no police etc. You have tribal laws, the riwaj, the jirga system [tribal councils]. There are major concessions from taxation, but all this is not free, sir.
In return for all these concessions, and these are collective concessions from which the tribes collectively benefit, there is a collective responsibility, a trade-off that every tribe is responsible for the security of its own respective areas, which is called Apni Mitti ki Zamdari [responsibility for one’s own land].
This entails that roads in those areas should be open, the political administration in that area should carry on its traditional responsibilities without any hindrance. And the traditional law-enforcing agencies, like the Frontier Corps, Khasadars, carry on their traditional activities unhindered. It is most important that a tribe will not allow the use of its territory as a sanctuary for any criminal and anti-state elements to act against the interests of Pakistan … which are diluted now.
So, we talked to the tribes and said, “Look, you have this concession and this is your collective responsibility. Now, if you want to enjoy these concessions, come up with your collective responsibility that you cannot allow your territory to be used as sanctuary for anti-state elements for criminals as is happening now.”
We tell them that we understand they have problems and that they are weak, but the state of Pakistan is there to help them. This was the basis of our agreements with them.
Now, if there is a violation of the agreement, then there are the FCR [Frontier Crime Regulations], which are generally called draconian laws or black laws. These provide a system of redress, and it is a graduated response system.
First, say there is a violation by a tribe or an individual in that tribe, the first step is to call a jirga of the tribal elders and give them a reasonable period of time [to rectify the problem].
If it does not happen, then you can put pressure, through penalties, stoppage of allowances etc. If that pressure does not work, then you can start with a system of risks, where you start with the near family of the individual and slowly move towards the tribe. This is how it happens, to put more pressure, you arrest them under the FCR. But because it is a collective responsibility, the response is also collective and if it does not work then the FCR allows for any economic blockade, you can block the roads, you can seal their shops, you can freeze their accounts.
If nothing works, then military punitive action can be taken.
If you examine the FCR, it is an adaptation of tribal culture because if there is a dispute between two tribes or two individuals, what would they do? First they have a jirga to talk it out. If it does not work, they block the roads, and if that does not work, they catch each other persons … if that does not work, they form a lashkar [militia] and they fight.
That is why when last year on the floor of parliament the prime minister announced the intention to repeal the FCR there was an immediate major reaction – two reactions. The first was that it was a black law, that it was draconian, so get rid of it. Very good. That reaction came from non-tribal Pashtuns who were either living in the [cosmopolitan centers of] Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar or Islamabad, Dera Ismail Khan, but not in the tribal areas.
From inside the tribal areas there was a different reaction. They said, “Look, this is our law and we understand it is according to our custom and traditions, don’t abolish it. If you want, maybe make small reforms, but if you are really bent on removing it, then we don’t want that.” This is what they said to me: “Governor sahib. Give us the sharia [Islamic laws].” If you remember, it was all over the newspapers that there was the demand for sharia by the evening [after the prime minister announced his intentions]. It was because the FCR are very similar, it is basically an adaptation and modification of tribal culture, that is why they have an acceptability there.
So our response to the problem was three-pronged. One was to deal with the tribal people on the basis of their own traditions. Two was to reconstruct and restrengthen the administrative system according to the FCR and the old tribal system. We talked to these people [and said], “Look, you have to get your lives in order, this is not on and you are suffering, we are also suffering. If your people are going and crossing into Afghanistan, you are creating problems for Pakistan, this has to stop. We understand you are weak and we will help you, but you get your act in order.” When they did not get their act in order we tried jirgas and everything, and when they did not work, eventually it came to military punitive action.
North Waziristan, yes there are problems. However, since February , because of this agreement, it has been quiet. But there are [still] problems, we understand this, but we are working through the system now to slowly, slowly, solve them. Otherwise, it is a conflict zone, the administration is out and everybody is out. This is what I told our allies, that in a conflict zone there is nothing you can do, it will continue to radicalize society. You have to stop the fighting and let normal economic and social activities take place. You have to let the administration go back in there so that you can create space and restrict the space for militants, otherwise the entire space is a conflict zone and is available to the militants, as it is available to our forces also.
Now there is another thing which people don’t understand. Each agency [tribal area] has its own peculiar character and its own peculiar conditions, its tribal balances and each has to work separately. I will give you an example. In South Waziristan, we have the Ahmadzai wazirs [tribe] who are traditionally a quarter [of the population] and we have the Mehsud [tribe] who are three-quarters. But the Mehsud does not have borders with Afghanistan and they have to travel to each other’s territory for their normal activities, and that decides the tribal balance and the tribal politics. However, after 1979 there was a migration of the Ahmadzai wazir from Afghanistan into this area and in that old population the demographic balance was disturbed. So a new set of conditions has come in.
In Kurram Agency there is a Shi’ite and Sunni thing and in addition there is a third outside element – militants, which complicates the situation. So each requires a different approach. We have done it successfully in Bajaur [Agency] and successfully in Mohmand [Agency]. If militants surrender and stop fighting, the civilians, for example in Mohmand Agency, the Tarakzai tribe, they said they will take responsibility for this person [militant] for his good conduct.
We have done this in the major parts of Khyber Agency, we are doing it in Dara and we have the same agreements now in North Waziristan, in South Waziristan, in the Wazir area, and we have some sort of stability.
[However,] in the Mehsud area [in South Waziristan] we took action last year, we talked, but when it did not happen [peace] and an attack came from the other side, we started military actions. But we did it in the traditional way, that whenever we used to bomb an area we would give notice for women, children, old men and non-combatants to get out. There was an immediate exodus of 170,000 and we were ill-prepared for that but we quickly vacated schools for them, erected tents etc and put them up while we took action. As soon as the operation was over, they went back.
The same happened in Bajaur Agency before we started action, we told the tribal chiefs that action was going to happen and they should vacate the area and that is why 300,000 people went out, 40,000-50,000 in camps. The rest stayed with families and friends in different areas. Now [since the operation is over] they are in the process of going back.
ATol: You mentioned the agreement in North Waziristan. It resulted in peace undoubtedly, but immediately after the peace agreement the militants formed a shura, a shura of mujahideen
OAG: The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] …?
ATol: No, I am talking about the shura of mujahideen.
OAG: No, sir. We had the TTP. The shura of mujahideen has come now [not immediately after the agreement], just a month or two ago.
ATol: Anyway, they have turned their guns towards Afghanistan. Peace came here in Pakistan, but at the cost of more insurgency in Afghanistan.
OAG: The world is responsible for Afghanistan, all the troubles we face here are from Afghanistan, the roots of the problems are in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan. We have been battling the fallout from Afghanistan and I say it is not Pakistan’s responsibility. Nobody should blame Pakistan because, number one, we never invited the Soviet army into Afghanistan. It was the Afghans themselves. We never brought international terrorists into Afghanistan. It was not our ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] or anybody, it was international intelligence agencies, over and above the objections of the ISI.
There was a basic agreement that only Pakistani intelligence would deal with the [Afghan mujahideen groups in the 1980s] and jihadi organizations and everybody in Europe and the US supported this. But they started their own operations and they were warned that they would not be able to control these people. And that is exactly what happened. But Pakistan was not responsible for that
prove that the government never used power first. Every time we conducted military operations, it was as retaliation. Whether it is the tribal areas, Swat, or elsewhere, we only responded to violence committed by the militants.
ATol: You have presented an account from your side, including your achievements. Now I present some ground realities. Soon after your peace overtures, Hakeemullah Mehsud [a Taliban leader in Orakzai Agency] levied a jazia [a tax on non-Muslims] on 50 Sikh families and collected 15 million rupees.
OAG: [Laughing] A plain case of abduction for ransom. This is not
the only case, they collected this so-called jazia even from Muslims.
ATol: Over 70% of the Shi’ite population of Dera Ismail Khan [a city in NWFP near South Waziristan] has moved to the district of Bakhar due to target killings. This is happening in your province … even after peace deals.
OAG: It has nothing to do with the peace agreement. Shi’ite-Sunni conflict is old. It has been aggravated from time to time. Even before 9/11, it was there. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi [an anti-Shi’ite underground militant group] started from southern Punjab. I have warned that these organizations, like the Sepah-e-Sahaba [an anti-Shi’ite political movement] are poison. It is a great challenge for the entire Muslim ummah [community] to reconcile between these two Muslim sects.
ATol: Attacks on NATO supply lines have increased drastically. At present, 66 Humvees, according to my information, are in the possession of Pakistani militants and they are moving in those vehicles in the tribal areas. Your government failed to provide protection to NATO convoys passing through your province on the way to Afghanistan.
OAG: Only two Humvees. I know precisely. One of the two was destroyed by us. One is there [in the possession of militants].
ATol: You failed to get a kidnapped Iranian diplomat released. This is despite that you are aware of the location of his captivity.
OAG: The Iranian diplomat is not alone. There is an Afghan diplomat, there is Khadija Abdul Qahar [a Canadian journalist and a Muslim convert], and a Polish engineer unfortunately was killed. Then there was an attack on an American who was killed [in Peshawar]. This is a very difficult period. This area is heavily destabilized because of the superpowers’ regional interests. If you think that somebody could clean up this mess in seconds. No, sir.
I told you earlier that I am not really concerned why incidents are happening, they will continue to happen because of the circumstances. We have to confront the situation gradually. This is a long-term struggle, and it does not mean this agreement is wrong. The issue is whether we are moving forward or not. Yes, sir, we are moving forward. Last year in March and April, people were speculating on the fall of Peshawar. By the grace of God, leave Peshawar apart. Areas like Warsak, Mithni, Bajaur and Mohmand, Jamrud, Bara, Dara Adamkhail, Hangu, Doaba, those were no-go areas, nevertheless, incidents will happen.
ATol: Do you support some militants and condemn others?
OAG: We do not support a single militant.
ATol: You praised Taliban leader Mullah Omar in an interview with a British newspaper. You praised mujahid Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
OAG: You mean Afghan Mullah Omar? Where have I praised him?
ATol: You mentioned them as friends and that there was no threat to Pakistan from these people.
OAG: I said that they were not interested in jihad in Pakistan. The focus of their jihad is in Afghanistan, which is a fact. Look, you have to take in the viewpoints of everybody, including the militants. The adversary is saying that there is a non-Muslim occupation army in my home. They say that when the Soviets invaded, it was jihad, they were also non-Muslims, so it was a jihad. If this is not a jihad [now], then it was also not a jihad [against the Soviets].
They say that it is a jihad for them and they call it a war of liberation against the foreign occupation army. Their focus is not Pakistan at all. Does it mean that we are supporting them? No, sir. It only means that their focus is Afghanistan and not Pakistan. I had only said that this Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] has a strange approach on jihad in that their entire focus is Pakistan – they don’t fire a single bullet on Afghanistan. As a Muslim, I cannot comprehend their [TTPs] concept of jihad.
ATol: You have called Pakistani militants criminals. You have accused them of having nothing to do with religion, that they don’t even offer prayers.
OAG: You took it wrong. They [militants] have developed a concept under which their leader’s [ameer’s] religious decrees override entire old Muslim schools of jurisprudence. Whatever their ameer declares is considered correct. If he declares that you are in a state of war and if you skip prayers, never mind. So I mentioned instances. I was only reinforcing a point that they have a strange system because we have old schools of jurisprudence that all Muslims follow, like Hanafi, Shafai, Malaki, Hanbali and others. But they have developed a concept that the existing religious decrees of an ameer override everything. I was explaining that.
ATol: We are running out of time …
OAG: In Pashtu it is said “Don’t do shaf shaf … called shaftalu [don’t say half words]. The time has gone to cover up things. We must speak openly about issues. Maybe my viewpoint will be wrong. But here I have a responsibility and assignment and this is how I look at things and this is how I intend to fulfill them.
I told the Americans, Petraeus and Boucher were sitting here. I asked, “Gentlemen, for seven years you have been fighting, what is your result?” We have been fighting. What is our result? So we have had to step back and review our strategy and we have come to the conclusion that we will proceed like this.
However, if you have differences with my strategy, then you had better have a better idea to put on the table. If you don’t have a better idea, then don’t tell me to go back to the old strategy because that patently did not work. Therefore, let me try this, if it does not work, we will come back and discuss it. I told them our strategy was working and we are moving forward. We have turned the tide and it will take some time. I asked them what they have done in Afghanistan. I told them that they had admitted that 70% of Afghanistan is out of government control. That’s why I told them that al-Qaeda etc does not need Pakistan and FATA, they have plenty of space in Afghanistan to have their bases, their training – whatever is happening is happening over there.
ATol: There is a perception that US Predator drone attacks inside Pakistan have been a success. What is your opinion?
OAG: I consider this as totally irrelevant. This debate is irrelevant. The basic principle is the sovereignty of Pakistan. Any action that takes place inside Pakistan will be by Pakistan itself, that is the foundational principle. Therefore, I consider this debate as irrelevant and irrational.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com