This interview appeared in “The News” on August 6, 2006.

In South Waziristan, due to the flawed strategy by the government in the last one and a half year, (local militants) have organised themselves into a Taliban-style system of governance. They have established a parallel sort of administration.

By Raza Rahman Khan

Brigadier (Retired) Mahmood Shah hails from Hoti village in Mardan district. He received his education in Mardan and Karachi before joining the army.

During his army career, he has mostly worked in Balochistan and Azad Kashmir. After his retirement, he was offered to become the home secretary of Balochistan but he refused because he wanted to serve in his home province, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). In 2000, his wish was granted and he became the Secretary for Home and Tribal Affairs in NWFP.

When in 2003 situation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) deteriorated, he was made Secretary Security for the areas. During his tenure, the government launched operations in FATA in connection with the war on terror against Al-Qaeda and Taliban. As a result of these operations, some high-profile militants were also nabbed. He worked on this post for a little more than two years.
Because of his position as the in charge of security in Fata, The News on Sunday sat with him to know the current state of affairs there in the context of an on-going military operation against foreign and local militants in North and South Waziristan agencies. Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday: How do you view the current security situation in FATA?

Mahmood Shah: The situation is not good particularly in North and South Waziristan as well as in Khyber Agency. Similarly, we have some indications of the deterioration of situation in Bajaur Agency and its adjoining Dir area of NWFP.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: In almost all tribal agencies, religious movements spearheaded by local clerics are fast gaining ground. Do you think it is an unmistakable sign of FATA’s Talibanisation?

MAHMOOD SHAH: Tribespeople are uneducated on the one hand while on the other they are Islamic-minded. (This makes them) very prone to manipulation by any movement with Islamic pretensions. The (tribal) areas which are the most under-developed are the most vulnerable. For instance, South Waziristan is the most under-developed (tribal area) followed by North Waziristan. (It’s not a surprise that both) have correspondingly fallen to the influence of religious elements. I don’t, however, see all this happening in Kurram Agency and Bajaur Agency.

Also, of course, the tribesmen are inspired by Taliban. That is why they want to name themselves as (Pakistani Taliban). (But) there are more chances for Talibanisation to thrive in the under-developed parts of FATA than elsewhere. The government needs to take measures to ensure that this does not happen.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: What sort of a control Taliban have in North and South Waziristan?

MAHMOOD SHAH: In South Waziristan, due to the flawed strategy by the government in the last one and a half year, (local militants) have organised themselves into a Taliban-style system of governance in which they have an ameer, a shura and commanders and they have committees to govern all the villages. Taliban there have established a parallel sort of administration.

In North Waziristan, too, they have a parallel system of government but it is not very organised.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: What are the flaws in the official policy?

MAHMOOD SHAH: The agreements (signed by the governments and the tribal militants), especially those signed after the second Shakai agreement, are very lenient (towards the militants). (These agreements have) in particular dispensed with the condition that the tribes surrender their men for interrogation. They are being let free without any sort of investigation. As a result, they become heroes. At this particular moment the whole administration of FATA including the governor, the secretary, the political agents have been changed. During the last one and a half year, the Taliban heroes have encroached upon the government’s power.

But I believe even if the agreements were basically faulty, they could have made a difference if they could be implemented. The government should have at least ensured that the militants did not roam around brandishing weapons. That has not been done. So, it’s not a surprise that the Taliban have become strong.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: Does this mean that entering into a truce with Taliban is not desirable? Do you think it is proving counterproductive?

MAHMOOD SHAH: It is going to be counterproductive. In fact, the government should not have adopted an apologetic approach. The tribespeople like assertive, firm people dealing with them.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: Are you saying that the intelligence and security apparatus has failed in the tribal areas?

MAHMOOD SHAH: I won’t really say that they have failed but (there is a) lack of coordination between intelligence agencies, armed forces and the political administration. That is why I have been talking of weak administration during the last one a half years. It is the job of the political agent to assert his powers and carry out the coordination. Otherwise, the army, the intelligence agencies and political agent will all be doing some thing but their work will not be coordinated. It is the task of the political administration to bring all these agencies on one platform.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: Do you think that the government is failing in FATA because it has kept FATA as a buffer zone between Afghanistan and mainland Pakistan?

MAHMOOD SHAH: The basic purpose for the creation of FATA was not to act as a buffer zone. They just happened to be there (on the border between the two countries) by coincidence. The government’s weakness has been that it failed over the last 50 years to merge the tribal areas into Pakistan. Various factors delayed decisions (in this regard). Negligence was one of the major factors in this. Pakistan has been mainly engaged in Kashmir and with India. The tribal areas were considered safe. The amount of focus which the areas get now, if it continues I am sure FATA will get integrated fully into Pakistan.

In fact, tribesmen have always been staunch Pakistanis and Muslims. Moreover, they are very war-like as well as dependable. They have always defended the border on their own. Even before the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980s, they stood steadfast against all the efforts by (former) president Daud of Afghanistan for creating Pashtoonistan through buying the loyalties of tribesmen. They deem Pakistan as a Muslim state. Pakistan has been relying on the tribesmen (for the defence of its western border) and can rely on them even today.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: What should be done to strengthen the writ of the government in FATA?

MAHMOOD SHAH: The political administration should be strengthened which at this moment has been relegated to a secondary position. But his should be a transitional arrangement. As a long term solution, political agents should be replaced by a more accountable body. Checks and balances should be in place. There should be no abrupt changes because tribesmen have a highly stable society. Also, the maliks have become weak due to a number of factors. For instance, adult franchise did away with their exclusive voting rights and the people have also got educated over a period of time. So there is no need for strengthening the maliks. Then the reformation of the administration is also absolutely necessary. There should be structural, financial, judicial reforms in the tribal areas. The reformation of law and order apparatus and governance are also critically required. Moreover, the system should be reformed in such a manner that people have a sense of participation in it.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: Were Taliban already gaining ground during your tenure as secretary security?

MAHMOOD SHAH: During my tenure, the Pakistan Army adopted a very correct policy with the help of the political administration of the tribal areas. Each operation was followed by an agreement which was negotiated from a point of strength with the tribes. They were told to surrender their people and to provide cash guarantees to the government. There was absolute peace ensured in the areas. For instance, Shakai was so peaceful that I visited it, the governor went there and there were even plans for President Musharraf’s visit. At that time, there was no hint of Talibanisation in that area. People have been asking why the same policy was not followed in North Waziristan where military were carried out without the political administration being in the lead. (It’s precisely for this reason) that North Waziristan is the area where maximum damage has occurred.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: Reports suggest that an increasing number of people is coming under the influence of Talibanisation in FATA. Do you think this trend will soon be spreading to the parts of the Frontier province and even beyond that?

MAHMOOD SHAH: Yes. The Frontier and the Pashtoon areas of Balochistan will be susceptible to this influence. But I don’t think that the Taliban system will be acceptable to most of the people in these regions because most of them are educated and a lot of them are enlightened people.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: Has there been any pressure from the United States for a hot pursuit of Taliban by its forces in FATA?

MAHMOOD SHAH: Though there has been some threat (of hot pursuit by the Americans), the Americans are convinced of the sincerity of Pakistan in the fight against terror. But certain Afghan elements have been putting doubts in their minds. That is why there have been some indications that if we can’t do the job properly they will do it themselves. It will be a very wrong decision on the part of the Americans if it violates the sovereignty of Pakistan because Pakistan has been doing what it can. There is a difference of perception between us and the Americans. The Americans need to understand that they are dealing with the Afghan society which is shattered due to prolong war. Whereas, on Pakistani side the society is well intact. So we can carry out operations only to the extent where we don’t jeopardise the stability of our tribal society. Also, we have the capability of carrying out search operations and anything else (that is required) on our own. (If the Americans think that we don’t have this capability) they should provide it to us. They should provide us the information (of any troublesome activities in our areas) and we will be following it up.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: But what if worse comes to worst and the Americans have to enter Pakistani territory?

MAHMOOD SHAH: Yes, that will be the worst case scenario. If the Americans enter Pakistan, we will have to review whole of our policy because then the United States will be actually attacking Pakistan. If that happens, should we still remain a part of the (American) coalition (against terrorism)? In that case, Pakistani government will be under severe pressure from its public to change its policy.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: Do you think fencing of Pakistan-Afghanistan border can offer a solution to these problems?

MAHMOOD SHAH: Fencing may not be a practical idea. But at least if Pakistan offers it this shows our sincerity. It is mainly to defeat the argument of the Afghan government (that Pakistan is proposing the fencing).

(It should be kept in mind) that all borders or boundary lines separate almost similar people. It does not make sense to argue that the Durand Line separates Afghan people. In fact, it should not be called Durand Line. It is an international border. The people on both sides of the border have accepted it. People living near the border are asked, “Are you an Afghan or a Pakhtoon?” If he says he is a Pakhtoon, it means he considers himself a Pakistani.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: How credible are the reports of India’s involvement in prevailing situation at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border?

MAHMOOD SHAH: They are very credible. The Indians have had this desire of engaging Pakistan on the western front right from 1950s and they have been prepared to pay any amount of money to (former Afghan president) Sardar Daud and people like the respected Faqir of Ippi to work as their tools. Now the Indians again have got a chance (to engaging Pakistan).

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: Do you have any proof to substantiate these charges?

MAHMOOD SHAH: Yes, the opening of (Indian) consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar has no other reason. The consulates are (generally) set up to facilitate your own citizens or if there is some economic interest to look after. What economic interest does India have in these cities and how many (Indian) Hindus and Sikhs reside there? These consulates are there to coordinate Indians efforts to give money to various tribal people on both sides of the border to foment trouble. There have been many people who have been coming to us and telling us that they were called by Indian consulates and were asked to do their bidding. We take many of these stories with a pinch of salt because we are also aware that the Afghans are good enough playing as double agents, getting money from both the sides. India is sort of a new entrant in this field. We feel Russia is a bigger power that has been there for quite sometime but it could not succeed. (This is because) an Afghan can be hired but he cannot be purchased for good. So you will find that India in the long run will be frustrated. Those who think that only money and deceit can work are absolutely wrong.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: There have been reports that international armies deployed in Afghanistan may ask India to send her troops there. In that case, Pakistan will be sandwiched by India on both sides

MAHMOOD SHAH: I have heard that they have already asked Indians to take a role in Afghanistan and some Indian troops are already there in Afghanistan. This is not a comfortable situation for Pakistan and we have strongly protested over it. But the American-led coalition has promised that the Indian troops would not be deployed close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. I hope they abide by this pledge.

THE NEWS ON SUNDAY: Hypothetically speaking, how real is the threat to Pakistan if we have Indian troops on both our eastern and western borders?

MAHMOOD SHAH: No, there need not be a threat. India’s entire army has (sometimes) been deployed on our eastern border and it has not posed any threat to us. If, therefore, some of (the Indian army) is deployed in another direction, it does not make any difference. We have contingency plans for a pincer war, which you probably are talking about.