By Ismail KhanAmir Haider Khan Hoti

WHEN the Awami National Party romped home in the February elections, many an analyst described it as a vote for peace and rejection of elements practising radical violence. Yet it could be the same elements, besides the reconcilable ones, that the secular nationalist party may have to make peace with in order to restore law and order to the NWFP and the restive tribal region.

After all, even the British had to sit down and negotiate with the Irish Republican Army, once dubbed as a terrorist organisation, to bring peace to Ireland through the Good Friday Agreement, argues the young and articulate chief minister-designate of NWFP, Amir Haider Khan Hoti.

“Some people say that we are inviting the Taliban to a dia logue. Our stand is that we are not inviting Taliban alone to the talks. We are inviting all those forces or individuals who somehow or the other have any link with the situation that we are facing, whoever they may be,” he said in an interview with Dawn here.

As for the Americans, he said, they would have to understand that “we have a problem here. Our people are being killed — innocent people. People feel insecure. They should understand our problem. We don’t want them to help us resolve our issues. What we do want them to do is to let us solve our problems by ourselves. And I hope they will understand”.

Born in February, 1971, the 37year-old graduate from Edwardes College Peshawar, is destined to not only become the youngest chief minister but also the first-ever consensus candidate for the top slot in the NWFP. “This is an honour”, he said. Yet, he is under no illusions about the difficult task he faces.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Some people say that you are too young and inexperienced to become the chief minister of NWFP. And second, why did the party choose a young man with no parliamentary experience to lead the province in such trying times? How would you handle complicated and difficult issues?

A: Actually the decision (to nominate me for the slot) was made by our parliamentary party. In our political history, all decisions in our party have been taken not by individuals but by party organs in a democratic manner. Our parliamentary party met, had consultations and I was unanimously nominated for this office. There was not a single individual who differed with the decision whether it was my nomination for the chief minister’s office or the decision to nominate a parliamentary leader. All decisions were unanimous.

As for your question regarding my experience, I acknowledge that it’s my first stint in the NWFP assembly. But I had some administrative experience in one form or the other. My father (Azam Khan Hoti) twice served as federal minister and there were matters which I would personally handle and attend to both here at the district level in Mardan and the province, particularly when he was federal minister of communications in his second stint.

I was born in politics and I breathe politics. It’s about leadership and I have sixteen years of practical experience in politics. So I have that in me. And then the party’s experience is behind me. I belong to a party that has a political history of more than 90 years. So I am fresh and have an open mind which is an asset in itself.

Q: Do you think you can overcome the challenges this province faces, address these huge challenges, for example Talibanisation and militancy?

A: We have no other option. Failure is not an option. Either we will have to achieve our goals and deliver. God forbid, if we fail it will not be the failure of a political party, I would say, it would be the failure of the last hope and aspirations of the Pukhtun nation.

Q: But how do you plan to address this issue? It’s quite complicated, there are several players involved.

A: You are very right. Law and order and internal security is a very complicated issue. And I would say that for our party and our government, this is the biggest challenge and if we could delivering on this front, it would be our biggest achievement. Our policy is very clear. The way this issue has been handled so far, in our opinion and in our assessment, was not the proper way to deal with it. In any society, more so in our Pukhtun society, no issue is ever resolved through the use of force and power. Issues are always resolved through dialogue, jirgas and negotiations. Even beyond Pakistan, countries which have had conflicts had to eventually return to the negotiating table to resolve their problems. In England, for instance, the British government had to negotiate with the Irish Republican Army, which it had previously dubbed as a terrorist organisation, and worked out the Good Friday Agreement.

Some people here say that we are inviting Taliban to dialogue. Our stand is that we are not inviting only Taliban but all those forces or individuals who somehow or the other have any link with the situation that we are facing, whoever they may be. Because if we, the parties to this conflict, do not sit together and talk to each other, this problem would not be solved. This prob lem is not going to be solved by my going to talk to the elders only. That may be good. But unless we somehow approach the one who has taken up arms, or is involved in suicide bombing or has gone to the other extreme, and reach an understanding with him, the problem would not be solved. You have to approach and sit with those elements. We may not sit with them directly. We may involve elders to approach them. But they will have to be approached and engaged in negotiations.

But having said this, I understand that this is an uphill task. There may be some forces who would want to sabotage this process which in any case is a very complicated process. But we have to take a start. We can’t afford to delay it further. Already enough time has been wasted.

Q: But some people say that jirgas too have not been able to deliver. Look at what happened to the jirga in Swat. It did not deliver. What makes you so optimistic that your efforts would yield positive results?

A: You have mentioned the Swat jirga. Yes, I agree with you, the jirga in Swat has not been very effective, powerful and sustainable as one would like it to be. But please don’t forget that jirgas in Dir, Shangla, Kohistan and Buner districts have yielded positive results. Jirgas which have the mandate and authority and are well-represented have always proven successful. We will see to it that we form jirgas which are mandated and given authority with across the board representation in order to make them successful.

Q: This calls for redefining the so-called “war on terror”. How would you achieve this, you know, getting everybody on board, the people, the militants, the establishment and perhaps, more importantly, the Americans?

A: The federal government has a very important role to play in this regard. Establishment is a reality, we cannot overlook. The people have given their mandate and it’s very clear what they want. They don’t want status quo to continue anymore. They want change. It’s a positive development. I have seen statements by Mr Asif Zardari and Mr Nawaz Sharif that the way this whole issue was handled was not the right course and that there is a need to review and change this course and move towards the dialogue. Americans have their
own role. It’s the only superpower. But if they have any concerns and reservations, we are willing to sit down with them and explain to them what our problem is. They should understand what our problem is. We have a problem here. Our people are being killed, innocent people. People feel insecure. They should understand our problem. We don’t want them to help us resolve our issues. What we want them to do is to let us solve our problems by ourselves. And I hope they will understand.

Q: What are your three main priorities?

A: First of all law and order, then financial, fiscal and political autonomy and a massive reform package in health, education, industry and other sectors. And renaming the NWFP as Pukhtunkhwa.

Q: How central is this issue of provincial autonomy in your negotiations for a coalition government at the centre?

A: Our leaders have had discussions with our coalition partners and they are all very clear on this — to strengthen the federation, they will have to strengthen the provinces. God willing, you will soon see results. There is a broader understanding at the leadership level. The concurrent list will have to go and the federal list needs to be reduced. They will have to give us fiscal and political autonomy. We don’t want to paralyse the centre and make it subservient to the provinces. All we want is that our due rights be guaranteed in the Constitution.

In addition, we want to empower the Senate in financial matters so that all provinces have a say. Our Senate truly represents the federation with equal representation of the four provinces; the more powers you give to the Senate, the more confident would the provinces be about their say in national matters.

Q: What are your views on Fata and when you talk about its integration what exactly do you mean?

A: Integration is a gradual process. Political parties would have to be allowed to operate in the tribal region and the Political Parties Act should be extended to cover Fata. Change wouldn’t occur overnight. It will have to be gradual and in consultation with tribal people. But change is a must. Before you undertake development or set up Reconstruction Opportunity Zones in Fata, you would need to introduce political and administrative reforms there. Frontier Crimes Regulations is still there; you will have to give them the same fundamental rights that are enjoyed by the rest of Pakistan and give them a sense of participation in their own affairs at the grass-roots level.

Then a development package may be introduced. This may be followed by giving them representation in the NWFP assembly. But this can be part of a gradual process. But status quo will have to be ended in Fata. If not, then I am afraid the people there would be easy targets for those who believe in violence and extremism.

Daily Dawn. March. 26,2008