The kidnapping of Farahi

By Rahimullah Yusufzai

Kidnapping for ransom is a flourishing business in Pakistan and not a day goes when a number of people aren’t kidnapped in different parts of the country. But the issue is highlighted when someone important is snatched or the kidnappers make political demands such as release of people detained by the government.

Due to the government’s weak writ in certain areas, Pakistan once again is faced with a difficult situation following the kidnapping of Abdul Khaliq Farahi, Afghanistan’s ambassador-designate, from Peshawar on September 22. This incident happened at a time when the government was still looking for a breakthrough in recovering the two Chinese telecommunication engineers Zhang Guo and Long Xiao Wei, who were kidnapped by suspected Taliban militants in Khal area of Upper Dir district in NWFP on August 29. The recovery of the young engineers, who were employees of a Chinese company which had been contracted by the mobile firm Telenor to set up towers and do other related work in the remote Upper Dir and Lower Dir districts, is no less important than that of ambassador Farahi in view of the friendly nature of Pakistan’s relations with China.

Despite Beijing’s enhanced role in world politics as a great economic power and its changing priorities, Pak-China friendship is still strong enough to withstand such incidents. Colourful terms as “higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the Arabian Sea” and “sweeter than honey” used to describe their time-tested friendship may have become repetitive and odd in view of the new dynamics of the international situation, still incidents of killing and kidnapping of Chinese workers in Pakistan in the past failed to damage China’s close ties with Pakistan. But the engineers’ kidnapping could have implications for Chinese investment in Pakistan. There are reportedly more than 7,000 Chinese nationals working on scores of projects, some located in the most remote and difficult places in Pakistan. Around 1,100 of them are working in NWFP mostly on hydel-generation projects. Up to 70 Chinese firms are actively executing about 120 projects in Pakistan and contributing to its progress.

It is now a familiar pattern that Chinese engineers and workers are pulled out from project sites due to security concerns and then redeployed after further tightening their security. Chinese nationals have faced terrorist attacks and threats in both NWFP and Balochistan and some have been killed and kidnapped. In fact, the Chinese workers in Pakistan are being targetted by both Pashtun Islamic militants and secular Baloch nationalists because they know that the Pakistani government could be brought under pressure and embarrassed by killing and kidnapping citizens belonging to Pakistan’s most sincere friend, China.

The kidnappers of the Chinese engineers are known and the place where they are being held isn’t a great secret. The Swat chapter of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is holding the two and parts of the valley in its control would be the most likely place where the hapless Chinese engineers are kept. The TTP in Swat appears keen to use them as bargaining chips to secure release of their men presently in government custody and, if possible, obtain other concessions from the authorities. This issue could be resolved in a give-and-take manner and though the government would lose face and look weak in accepting the kidnappers’ demands, it would not be the first time that such a deal is clinched. Weak state apparatus and inefficient governments would always land Pakistan in trouble and this is what you get when the armed forces, police and other institutions are unable to enforce the government’s writ in parts of the country.

Much more complicated is the case of ambassador Farahi’s kidnapping. Given the distrust that characterizes relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, his kidnapping could put further strain on their uneasy ties and fuel suspicions in Kabul with regard to Islamabad’s intentions. There is still no word from the kidnappers, whose identity would become known once their demands are made public. Pakistani Taliban are the usual suspects and they could get possession of Farahi even if he was kidnapped by some criminal gang. Tariq Azizuddin, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, ended up in the custody of TTP head Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan after being kidnapped from Khyber Agency. His freedom was secured after three months at a heavy cost. Despite government denials, it is obvious that Tariq Azizuddin was freed after payment of ransom and release of several Baitullah Mahsud’s men. In Farahi’s case, the Afghan Taliban too could become involved in the negotiations and bargaining to extract something for their cause because the ambassador is someone important in Afghanistan.

In such difficult circumstances, it was insensitive on the part of some unnamed Pakistani intelligence official to accuse Farahi of not informing any government agency and refusing to take along security guards with him because he was on his way to meet his girl friend in Peshawar’s Hayatabad town. The news was published and has understandably caused anger among the Afghan diplomats in Pakistan. One is sure the Afghan government too would have taken notice of it and this matter isn’t going to end anytime soon. At a time when Farahi’s life is in danger, it was irresponsible to say things that could create further mistrust between the Afghan and Pakistan governments. Already, many Afghans who support the government of President Hamid Karzai suspect the hand of some Pakistani secret service in Farahi’s kidnapping. The comment about Farahi having a girl friend was in poor taste and irresponsible to say the least because it could endanger his life at the hands of the kidnappers if they happen to be some intolerant Taliban. Such comments cannot be helpful in reassuring the Afghan government that Pakistan was doing everything within its means to recover ambassador Farahi.

All those who knew Farahi would vouchsafe that he is a good diplomat and a gentleman. Belonging to a wealthy and politically influential family, he conducted himself admirably while at work and in public functions. He had taken part in the Afghan jehad against the Soviet occupying forces. As a commander of Pir Sayed Ahmad Gaillani’s National Islamic Front of Afghanistan and later of Prof Sayyaf’s Ittehad-i-Islami, he fought for the liberation of his homeland. Subsequently, he transformed himself into a diplomat, serving as Afghanistan’s consul general first in Quetta and then for about six years in Peshawar. Farahi had lived for so long in Pakistan as a refugee, mujahideen commander and diplomat that he had made countless friends. All those Pakistanis and many more Afghans are upset since his kidnapping on September 22 and are praying for his safe recovery.

Farahi, who belongs to Farah province in western Afghanistan, had been tipped for the last few years to become Afghanistan’s ambassador in Pakistan. Somehow, it didn’t happen. But when it did happen and he was named as his country’s envoy in Islamabad, he was unable to present his credentials to the president of Pakistan as the new incumbent Asif Ali Zardari was yet to settle down in office. And now tragedy has struck and Farahi is in the hands of unknown kidnappers instead of celebrating and savouring his prized new job as the top Afghan diplomat in Pakistan.

It is obvious that Farahi was a marked man. He was representing the Afghan government in a place where its rival Taliban movement has large number of supporters. That he survived for six long years and was not killed or kidnapped shows that he wasn’t careless about his security. Lapses do occur and it seems he had become over-confident after having escaped harm all these years. Adviser to the prime minister on interior affairs, Rehman Malik, has a point when he says that Farahi should have used the 10 security guards provided to him by the Pakistan government. However, there is no point arguing now as to who was at fault. The priority should be to save Farahi and make every possible effort for his recovery. And it is the responsibility of the Pakistan government to lead these efforts because any harm to a diplomat on its soil would bring a bad name to the country. Failure to do so would do irreparable harm to the already uneasy relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai