Swat: Hardtalk: An interview with the NWFP Chief Minister

HARDtalk: “Our intelligence is not good enough” —Ameer Haider Hoti, Chief Minister NWFP

Ameer Haider Hoti, chief minister of the NWFP, says the army’s “ground intelligence is not good enough” to get militant leader Maulana Fazlullah in Swat, though the situation in the area has “not slipped out of hand totally”. In an exclusive interview with Daily Times’ Peshawar Bureau Chief Iqbal Khattak, Hoti expressed concern that the command structure of the militants is “still intact”, and that “their FM channel is still operational.” Excerpts follow:

Daily Times: How would you describe the situation in Swat today?

Ameer Haider Hoti: When this [insurgency] started, no one moved in. Had we moved in [at the beginning], I think we wouldn’t have had this problem now. In Swat…the situation on ground is not good. We tried peace agreements with military operations but, unfortunately, despite our best efforts we haven’t been able to achieve our targets. It is an extraordinary situation and we require an innovative solution for Swat right now. But…you have to look at whole picture. It is not just Swat. What is going on in FATA? The Swat situation is linked to the situation in FATA. For a stable Pukhtoonkhwa [NWFP], you need stability in FATA.

How are the government and the military coordinating their efforts against the militants?

The government’s priority is clear. We told the military it should be selective with its targets, and that there should be minimum collateral damage. But there has been a lot of collateral damage, and people have been complaining about what is happening. Now we got new commanders on the ground and have a better understanding with army. So, now the strategy is that the military will be clearing areas and handing them over to civil security forces. The military will be moving forward, instead of being scattered and stretched. That is what happened earlier, and it was not helping anyone.

ANP leaders Haji Adeel and Ilyas Bilour have openly admitted that Swat has slipped out of the government’s hands completely.

It has not slipped totally. With coordinated efforts, we can manage things. But let me admit that we do have a lot of problems and a lot of challenges as far as Swat is concerned. There is room for improvement. For that, force is one of the options. But civilians should not suffer. Political dialogue was and is the best possible option. Reconstruction and rehabilitation should follow. But winning the media war (against militancy) is very important. The same goes for rest of the province and the country.

Do the local people still have confidence in the government after the Pir Samiullah incident?

The people of Swat really hate [the militants]. They need the support of the government. We need to reorganise them. What happened to Pir Samiullah should not have happened. The Pir should have been supported. He was the voice of the people, he stood up against the militants. Unfortunately, he could not be supported and what happened after his death to him, no Muslim can accept.

How long do you think it will take the government and the armed forces to conclusively deal with this problem?

There is a war going on. We are facing an insurgency. I cannot give you a definite timeframe…but it is going to take quite some time.

Why do you think the army has failed to get Fazlullah?

I think this question is for the army to answer. I think our ground intelligence is not very good, which is a problem that is hurting the army and everyone involved. It is very difficult to differentiate between the locals and the militants. The army is worried about this. In a village of 5000, there are 50 to 100 militants, [who are difficult to identify if] you don’t have proper intelligence. We have discussed this problem to improve ground intelligence… I would love to see this insurgency defeated. But we have certain problems and setbacks. The command structure [of Fazlullah-led militants] is still intact. The FM channel is still operational. Something needs to be done about these things. We shouldn’t be allowing them to expand their territory. We are trying to make the military operations more effective.

Given your concerns about collateral damage, has the ANP stopped the army from conducting a full-fledged operation in Swat?

We clearly told [the army] that we can afford minimum civilian casualties. No government can afford a lot of collateral damage. So an operation on a massive scale right now would solve the problem to some extent…but at the same time would lead to a lot of civilian casualties. We don’t want this to happen. We want the operation to be selective and targeted. That can be managed with good ground intelligence.

Your government released Sufi Mohammed, Fazlullah’s father-in-law, as a confidence-building measure. Yet it has been obvious for months that Fazlullah did not value this gesture and continued with his activities.

Sufi Muhammad was not released because of Fazlullah. Sufi Muhammad was tortured; wasn’t treated properly. He was never given the opportunity to defend himself. In fact, no one took his case to a court of law. He was being held hostage for nothing. If the government had a case against him, it should have gone to court. This has happened to us, my own elders. They have been behind bars for ages without trial. [Sufi Muhammad] was freed purely on humanitarian grounds.

Is there any shift in the ANP policy on Swat?

Our policy is political dialogue. That will eventually be the way out. As a last option, to protect our own people and installation and to ensure that there is no parallel administration running, force has to be used. It is a hard decision for a political government to order the use of force.

Given your commitment to negotiations, are you still trying to negotiate a peace deal with Fazlullah?

Yes. We are ready to talk to anyone, provided the group or individual is ready to renounce violence, come to the negotiating table and accept the government’s writ. We are ready to negotiate even with those who planned and ordered the suicide attack at Wali Bagh if they are ready.

What about the Swat Taliban’s recent ‘summons’ to several politicians and influential people of Swat, including some from the ANP?

We don’t recognize them or their courts… They have no authority to summon anyone. No one is going to their court. This is a propaganda stunt.

Last year, just before you took over as chief minister, you said that if the imposition of sharia can improve things, why not. Do you still consider sharia to be a viable option?

You can call it sharia or adal regulation. Basically, what people want is speedy justice, and that is what we want too. But this will definitely be done in accordance with the Constitution. This system, in no way, will go against basic human rights and liberties.

Will Fazlullah stop his activities if sharia is enforced?

I don’t trust Fazlullah or any other miscreant. And we would not do this for Fazlullah. We will be doing this for the people of Malakand because this is their demand and it is genuine. By putting such a system in place, we would isolate those who carry out violent acts. (Daily Times)