“They need support…”
— Mohammad Afzal Khan, ANP leader and the hero of Swat
By Rahimullah Yusufzai
The 82-year old Mohammad Afzal Khan has emerged as a hero in Swat and beyond, to those who oppose the Taliban ideology. At a time when almost every politician and landlord, known as Khans, has moved out (of Swat) to escape harm at the hands of the militants, Afzal Khan has refused to leave his village, Bara Drushkhela, located in the Taliban stronghold of Matta. He has politely declined requests from relatives, his political colleagues from the Awami National Party (ANP) and well wishers to abandon Swat.
The militants have attacked his house a few times. He was injured in a roadside ambush in which his two bodyguards were killed and his nephew and Matta tehsil Nazim Abdul Jabbar Khan were wounded. His two other nephews were killed in another attack by militants, who have repeatedly threatened to eliminate Afzal Khan.
The News on Sunday: President Asif Ali Zardari recently phoned you and praised your courage while the Army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, arranged for you to be flown in a military helicopter to the Frontier Constabulary centre at Kanju in Swat for a meeting. What transpired in the President’s phone call and your meeting with Kayani? Do you think the military’s new operations in Swat are more focused and targeted?
Mohammad Afzal Khan: The President offered support in the battle against militants. General Kayani invited me for a meeting to offer consolation and backing and discuss the Swat situation. It was my first meeting with the General and I found him a sober, sincere and determined man. For the first time in the last two years of military operations in Swat have I found the security forces to be on the offensive. In the past, the Taliban were on the offensive and the troops were on the defensive. The three military strikes in Manglawar, Ningolai, Charbagh and Matta in which the army claimed to have killed several militants were focused and intense.
TNS: You have been seeking support of the government and the forces to arm the people and raise village militias to defend their villages against the Taliban. Do you think the authorities would now accept your proposal? Will this initiative succeed or trigger further clashes between the militants and villagers?
MAK: I made this proposal about 10 months ago but nobody in the government responded positively. My plea is that the people of Swat are mostly unarmed and are, therefore, at the mercy of the militants. Besides, the Swatis have lived under authoritarian rulers in the past and become somewhat subdued. The fear of the Taliban who terrorise the population through beheadings and target killings has snuffed the life out of our people. They need support so that their spirit could be revived. Moreover, the army cannot guard every village and street after having carried out military action and defeated the militants. In the absence of an effective police force and lack of the civil armed forces, the local people would be required to defend their towns and villagers and keep the Taliban at bay. For this purpose, the government must arm and equip them to fight the militants.
TNS: Many people in Swat and outside the valley were critical of the military until now for not doing enough to defeat the Taliban. What do you think was lacking in the military operation against the militants?
MAK: Once an army officer reportedly said that the military should not take sides in the conflict in Swat. I wondered why such a statement was made. The military has to take sides as the government writ has been challenged by a group of militants who want to set up a parallel administration and impose their will on the people. They are using heavy arms and strongarm methods to extend their writ at a time when the law-enforcement agencies in Swat are paralysed and the civil armed forces are nowhere to be seen. It is a battle between the state and the Taliban. The state in such circumstances must stand with those people who are refusing to bow before Taliban and offering sacrifices while resisting the militants. The military is now changing its tactics and is ready to fight back and stand with the people who are willing to die fighting the Taliban.
TNS: Your name tops the list of the 47 men wanted by the Taliban in Swat. You have been ordered to appear before their Shariat courts. Comment.
MAK: I have done nothing wrong and am at a loss to understand why am I being targeted. I am also very religious. And so is my family. However, we don’t accept the Taliban interpretation of Islam.
TNS: Why did your party leaders not consult you before inking a peace deal with Taliban in Swat? Is Asfandyar Wali Khan or NWFP Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti in touch with you now on the issue?
MAK: The peace accord was signed in a hurry and the ANP leadership and the provincial government agreed to certain measures that were beyond its powers. Military officials have been complaining that the peace accord emboldened the militants and gave them time to regroup for fighting fresh battles. The peace agreement was doomed when the Taliban started destroying schools and their spokesman, Muslim Khan, claimed responsibility for these attacks. Strangely, the provincial government was defending the agreement and claiming that the militants weren’t involved in the attacks on schools. However, I don’t want to create difficulties for ANP. In any case, one political party cannot resolve the entire problem. I don’t complain that Asfandyar Wali hasn’t phoned me because he has been ill. As for the chief minister, I was told he called but was unable to locate me. (The News on Sunday)