Veteran Pakistani journalist, Rahimullah Yousufzai, in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times
Rahimullah Yousufzai is a renowned journalist and an authority on AfPak affairs, the Taliban, militancy, and FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Area). He is not only a journalist but he was one of the members of the peace negotiation team assigned by the government of Pakistan in 2014 to talk to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The talks with militants didn’t succeed. Yousufzai has been known for having interviewed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda’s leader, who was killed in an American raid in Pakistan’s garrison city Abottabad. He has been given two state awards by the government of Pakistan for his brilliance in journalism.
Yousufzai recently was in Kabul as a member of the delegation led by the Chief Minister, Khyber Pakthunkhwa province, Pervez Khattak. The Chief Minister told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah that Afghan refugees wouldn’t be harassed in Pakistan. He spoke to The Oslo Times Deputy Bureau Chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rooh-ul-Amin on AfPak trade relations, human rights, the woes of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, security in the region, press freedom, and what led to the failure of peace negotiations between the government of Pakistan and the Taliban.
Q: My first question to you today is regarding your view on Human Rights, could you please tell us what Human Rights mean to you?
ANS: Human rights are the rights that every individual is born with. As they start growing so do their rights. Though these rights are defined by the law it needs to be enforced. From health to education, from job opportunities to security, from free speech to a terror free society and equitable distribution of wealth, are a few forms of human rights. Often times in our region, human rights faces threats when despotic monarchs come and capture the power or in a democracy as well when its actions and policies are undemocratic.
When we talk about human rights we must not forget what’s happening in the region called Pakistan and Afghanistan where civilians are being harassed, tortured, and jailed without trials and just on the basis of suspicions; they are gross violations of human rights. When their families don’t know about the whereabouts of their near and dear ones, it’s also human rights violation. The draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), in the tribal belt, which was imposed by then British-India, violates human rights. Under this blackest law an entire family or a tribe is punishable for the offense of just an individual. When we look at Swat—a valley in Khyber Pakhtunkwha, even democratic governments have allowed that houses of civilians be reduced to rubbles we come to know how human rights are being stampeded in this region. And the Taliban have also unleashed a wave of terror. They also violate human rights.
Q: You talked about the draconian FCR. Why it has not been abolished or reformed? If somebody tries to abolish or reform it where is he likely to face challenges from?
A: FCR has been there for over a century. This draconian law was imposed not only in the tribal belt but also in many other parts of the then British-India. In India it was abolished but in Pakistan’s tribal belt it is still intact. Unfortunately, in the last 67 years after Pakistan came into existence, no one attempted sincerely to either abolish the FCR or reform it. Until the introduction of adult franchise in 1997 by then President of Pakistan, Farooq Ahmad Khan Laghari, tribal people had no right of franchise to elect their representatives directly as only Malaks (tribal chiefs) used to select representatives to the national assembly, through an electoral college.
While in 2011, ex-President Asif Ali Zardari, brought about some reforms in FCR, but they are not practically enforced so far. Though the right to vote was extended to FATA by Laghari but representatives to the parliament were used to be elected on a non-party basis and Zardari by extending “Political Parties Act” to FATA, made it happening for candidates to contest on party basis.
Earlier, candidates used to contest elections independently and on party basis as well but party-based contests were illegal before the approval of the “Political Parties Act” to FATA. Another note worthy reform is the formation of an FCR tribunal, through which for the first time the right of appeal against the judicial verdicts of the political administration in FATA was given. The commissioner FCR was empowered to hear appeals. Earlier there was no right to appeal and the office of the political agent was administrative, judicial and legislative.
Political reforms say no action must be taken against an entire family, tribe, elderly, children or women, for the offense of just an individual, but in reality there have been no changes so this means that the reforms have not been fully accepted yet.
Q: Awami National Party (ANP) during its tenure attempted to merge FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. What is the standpoint of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a political party which has formed a coalition government in the province, on FATA?
A: The right to decide about the future of FATA rests with tribesmen. Their views should be known through referendum or whatever else. ANP is a political party with a nationalist ideology. There are other political parties too and they have their own views regarding FATA. However in general there are three views. The first one is FATA is okay with its traditional system given that there are a few reforms in the political administration. This view signifies that there is no need of massive changes in the political setup of FATA. The second view on the other hand points out that the FATA should be merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And the third view says that the FATA should be turned into an autonomous province. I had come across a survey which said that less than 30% people want merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I don’t know about the credibility of the survey. There might be some people seeking merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but I think majority of tribesmen want that FATA must be turned into a province.
A: It was a sentimental decision. When militants attacked an army-run school in Peshawar, the capital city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, last year in December, and killed 135 schoolchildren among 153 people and the entire nation was fuming over worst ever terror incident. The government was castigated for being too soft on the Taliban. Pressure was built up on the government to take serious action against militants. While giving in to the pressure, Islamabad decided to lift the ban on the capital punishment. The decision drew criticism from European Union and human rights organizations however the decision was taken while taking domestic challenges into account. There are too many political parties and human rights bodies that are vociferously condemning the lifting of moratorium on executions however if you ask any civilian in Pakistan, you will find that a huge majority approves of this decision. General public wants these militants hanged, who are currently behind bars. Personally I think this is an extraordinary decision, which was taken to tackle an extraordinary situation. And I also think Pakistan’s judiciary system is not satisfactory. I have a concern that whether those who have been subjected to capital punishments were actually offenders, has justice been done or denied. There are just too many reservations on how the judicial system works in Pakistan.
Q: Reservation over the performance of judicial system? So you mean forming military courts was a right decision instead of reforming the current judicial system?
A: Capital punishment is permissible under the Constitution of Pakistan. Only for 6-7 years there was moratorium on executions which was lifted in the wake of Peshawar school carnage. Here two things must be taken into account. First, capital punishment is legal in Pakistan. In too many other countries capital punishments have been abolished. In Pakistan there was only a pause for 6-7 years, it was not legally revoked. Now, from human rights point of view this law must be abrogated. However, when people in Pakistan see they are flooded by militancy then a general view is popular there that punishments must be severe. When the murderers and the militants are ruthless, the people want to be ruthless too.
Q: After Amy Public School (APS) carnage, what is the status of Afghan refugees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistan?
A: Unfortunately, whenever there is a tragic incident, without evidences, fingers are pointed at Afghan refugees. If the police department wants cover-up for its weaknesses, it blames Afghan refugees and the attention is deliberately diverted towards them. Yes, there are criminals and anti-social elements among Afghan refugees but they are very few. Majority of them are not involved in crime or terrorism.
Soon after the APS attack, people started talking about some Afghan refugees who were working in the canteen of the school. The
government of Pakistan also said that the leaders of those who carried out the APS attack, like (Mullah Fazlullah, and Khalifa Omar Mansoor—who is considered to be the mastermind) are in Afghanistan. It is said the terrorists came down from Afghanistan to Khyber and from Khyber to Peshawar. However, what the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government decided was much sentimental and senseless. The provincial government ordered that Afghan refugees must be deported. The provincial government didn’t even think about the tripartite agreement between Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNCHR. The government has the right to deport but only the undocumented Afghan refugees. How you can deport the documented Afghan refugees? Moreover, Afghan refugees’ matter is related to the federal government as the tripartite agreement has been signed by the center not by the provincial government. Therefore, the provincial government cannot decide about their fate. The Afghan government also detests it. An Afghan delegation went to Pakistan. The Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Mr. Hussian Alami Balkhi and also Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Mosazai, talked to Pakistan’s government leaders regarding the plight of refugees. Moreover, those Afghan refugees who don’t have registration documents are truly illegal and causing troubles to the documented refugees. If Pakistan wills, it can deport only the undocumented refugees, but with respect. However, Pakistan cannot repatriate the documented ones (1.7 million), even if it wants to, because there is a tripartite agreement. This agreement lasts until December 2015. A few years back it was renewed after its expiry.
Q: When the developed nations talk of free borders, do you see such a possibility between Afghanistan and Pakistan exists? Even before the formation of the European Union, these western nations had too many political issues as well and if they could integrate into EU why AfPak cannot form a Union too?
A: Until security problems successful addressed, I don’t think there will be any such a possibility. The situation here is extraordinarily tense. Though there is no free border concept but the border is highly porous. Even the deployment of over 1, 50000 foreign troops along with Afghan national security forces on Afghan side and 1, 50000 troops from Pakistan on its side of the border in the tribal belt couldn’t suppress the cross border movements. Now the troop number has been reduced. Until security problems are effectively addressed, cultural, education, social and trade relations will ever remain stagnant.
Q: How can trade relations bring the two nations closer?
A: Waiting for security relations to improve and ignoring others is not rationalism. Trade ties are of utmost importance and now they
are talking about it as the Pakistani delegation led by Pakistan’s Minister for Commerce, Khurram Dastagir Khan, has already arrived here in Kabul for this very purpose. According to this delegation the progress on APTTA (Afghanistan–Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement 2010) is going well. Khurram also said that modern dry ports will be constructed in Torkham—a supply route in the troubled Khyber Agency and Chaman—a supply line in Quetta, Balochistan.
After extensive talks with Afghan officials in Kabul Dastagir Khan said they made worth commending progress on AfPak Trade and Transit Agreement.If cultural, social, media, and other relations are improved, its positive impacts are seen on security relations as well. However, if you want to see political and security relations improved, you cannot just sit around idly while waiting for miracles to happen.
A: If you compare Pakistan with Central Asian Republics you will find a huge difference. There is no democracy at all in Central Asia. These republics are being ruled by the same old faces. Only one new guy emerged in Turkmenistan when his successor passed away.
This new guy Nyazaove is also an autocrat. Look at Tajikistan and you will see Emomali Rahmon, who has been ruling the country since long. Though a new face has emerged in Kyrgyzstan but there is no democracy. And where there is no democracy you cannot think of media freedom. Therefore, I don’t see any possibility of development of free speech in the Central Asian Republics. Here in Afghanistan or there in Pakistan, media indeed is quite free. Ask anybody in Afghanistan and he will tell you that they have free media. And ask any journalist in Pakistan and you will get the same response. Though freedom of press is there in the two country countries, however, being a journalist and working for the past few decades, I think we are quite meticulous in certain areas or we are truly under restrains and pressure. Journalists are particularly careful when they write on Pakistan’s security establishment, security troubles, issues with Afghanistan, issues with India, and Kashmir dispute, or nuclear program. You will have to careful not to stir anger of Pakistan’s army.
Q: You talked about Pakistan’s army. Why doesn’t it permit journalists to report from FATA? Do you think it wants journalists protected from being killed by militants by not allowing them to report from over there?
A: For FATA there is a policy. Foreigners cannot go there. Even if they want to go they will have to get a permit. Moreover, there are security forces as well as Taliban militants in the FATA regions. Both have terms and conditions. You cannot go there without informing them. For instance, the Taliban told us one day that if any journalists are seen in North Waziristan without their permission, then they are not responsible if anything happens to them. Both parties don’t want journalists there. They don’t want that true picture of the situation should be reported. War reporting indeed is a daunting and a riskier job. What we are reporting are just statements, claims and counter-claims. We don’t have access to what really is happening there, therefore, we the journalists don’t know the truth. Whatever we report is the half-truth or the half-picture.
Q: The governments of Punjab and Sindh banned entry of Internally Displace Persons (IDPs) to their provinces. How do you see the ban?
A: I condemn the ban. If Pakistan is one country then there must not be any ban on internal migration. They say the IDPs cannot come to Punjab and Sindh. It’s an outright violation of human rights. It means it is the responsibility of the people of FATA, Khyber Pakhutnkhwa, and Balochistan only to deal with their problems as it’s not Pakistan’s problem. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces are already under strain because of joblessness, economic challenges and crime rate. Dealing with the influx of thousands of IDPs into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is really a hectic job particularly when the two key provinces (Punjab and Sindh) have banned their entry. They have left Khyber Pakhutnkhwa alone to deal with this issue. The problem is Punjab and Sindh talk much about Pakistan, the people of FATA and their sacrifices, but when it comes to their part to help these people they turn their backs on these stranded and helpless people. Banning IDPs under the excuse of security is outrageous. And when there were no IDPs in Punjab and Sindh, was there no security problem? Who is behind terrorism in Karachi? This ban has exposed the difference in their words and actions.
Q: Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab and the young brother of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wanted to cut deal with Taliban as long they didn’t conduct operations in Punjab. A Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report also said that Shahbaz wanted deal with al-Qaeda for no attacks in Punjab. The WSJ has quoted of a letter received from Osama files. What is your take on this?
A: Actually this is not something quite secret as Shahbaz Sharif once said it in public that he had called on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) not to carry out attacks inside Punjab. The relations of Sharif family with the Taliban and jihadists, is not a secret. They might have done it under a certain policy but now the situation has changed. Now the policy is no more in vogue. Pakistan’s army has launched military operations in FATA. Nawaz Sharif is the Prime Minister of Pakistan now. The story of the letter is perhaps related to the time when it was a policy of then governments in Pakistan to extend a hand of friendship towards the jihadists. Now that very policy has changed.
Q: The Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhutnkhwa, Pervez Khattak, who is right now here in Kabul and you are one of the members of the delegation he is leading, has also once stated that he was ready to give an office to the Taliban in Peshawar. What is your say on his statement?
A: Whatever Imran Khan, the chairman of PTI, or his chief minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pervez Khattak, used to talk about peace negotiations with the Taliban or offering them an office in Peshawar, the provincial capital, it looked as if they don’t have any homework. I think Imran Khan and Pervez Khattak didn’t consult other senior party leaders on offering an “office” to Taliban in Peshawar. Therefore what they said, it seems to be quite offhand. This is true they had much sympathy for the Taliban before the APS carnage. Before the APS carnage, they thought that only negotiations, is the remedy to the security problems. Nevertheless, they realized it much recently that general public is quite against the Taliban. And the public is no mood to favor peace talks with them. Therefore, now PTI supports military operations. So, I think PTI has changed its policy. This change is good because before the APS incident Imran Khan used to talk equivocally and at times used to castigate military operations but after the APS attack much has changed.
Q: What‘s your message to the policymakers in Kabul and Islamabad?
A: Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot live in a bust-up. They are extremely interdependent. How much longer can they hold off on security, trade and political reforms? Now or later but definitely they will have to improve their security relations. They must know that peace must be restored. Importance must be given first to negotiations. In Pakistan negotiations with the Taliban failed. Or let me say no serious talks were initiated at all. There were direct talks between the delegations from the government and the Taliban, but only for once. I was also one of the members of the government negotiation team. After that there were too many rounds of indirect talks. The peace talks didn’t succeed but security establishment was reluctant. There were also rifts among the Taliban over peace talks. Some wanted negotiations and some opposed it. And the situation was bedeviled when the Taliban killed FC paramilitary troops who were taken hostage. The failure of talks was followed by military operations. But military operations are also not the ultimate solution. Yes, the operations have hamstrung the Taliban. And there has been a visible decrease in the number of terror attacks. But complete peace cannot be restored until there is cooperation between the two neighboring countries.
They are extremely interdependent.”
Until there is peace in Afghanistan peace will always remain a distant cry in Pakistan. Here in Afghanistan the government is eager on peace talks with the Taliban but the Afghan Taliban are reluctant. Whatever influence Pakistan has over the Afghan Taliban, now is the time, it must exert it to push the Taliban to the table of negotiations. Bringing the Taliban to the table of negotiations with the Afghan government is a difficult job because even if they sit on the table no one can predict if the negotiations will succeed. There are too many challenges but, this doesn’t mean one should not try to resolve the issues and put the hatred aside. Over the years there have been too many incidences of bloodshed, war and chaos. And after years and years of bloodshed when they will finally opt for negotiations, if it has to happen eventually, why not “now”?All Rights Reserved with The Oslo Times