Eye on Pakistan

Rehan Malik, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Interviewed in the FT

Posted in Domestic Affairs by onpakistan on June 26, 2009

Rehan Malik’s interview with the FT can be found here. Mostly garbage, but I was struck by how much of the interview was spent on control of the Pakistan-Afghan border. May have been an artifact of the editing of the lengthier transcript by the FT. I doubt that there are many in Pakistan who believe that tighter controls over the border will solve the militancy issues in NWFP. In fact Malik himself indicates that much of the problem may lie in South Punjab. Talk of tighter border controls is, I think, mostly for Western consumption: the Americans in particular are long-standing supporters of building border walls and fences in order to solve international or domestic issues or placate domestic constituencies.

I reproduce the published transcript below:

Transcript: Interview with Pakistan’s interior minister

Published: June 25 2009 20:00 | Last updated: June 25 2009 20:00

Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, discusses the threat from Taliban militants in the northern Swat valley and Waziristan region in the federally administered tribal areas [FATA) along the Afghan border – the two main focal points of recent efforts to block the advance of the Taliban. Farhan Bokhari, the FT’s Pakistan correspondent, interviewed Mr Malik on June 24. The following are edited transcripts.

FT: How big is the threat of a militant backlash from Swat? Are those militants still in a position to retaliate?

Rehman Malik: We have killed over 3,500 people and a good number have been injured. I will take Swat and FATA together. The militants have been doing their operations together. The setback which the militants have received, it will take a lot of time for them to recoup. They were quite confident that the government will not be able to launch such a major operation. In Swat we found up to 70-yard long tunnels, full of arms and ammunition. Then, there were huge ammunition depots. Then, there were training centres, mines and even rocket launchers were brought in and were taken into position. Their tactics were to attack from the cliff tops. This was well understood by our law enforcers. This time our operation was done from all four sides [of Swat region], from the south, the north, the west and the east. We made sure the militants were encircled. The good thing is that this was the first operation where we had the unanimous backing of the nation. The government remained on a high moral ground.

FT: You still believe you will be able to maintain the upper hand?

RM: It all depends on what is required. There has to be a good infrastructure, a good administrative structure and writ of the government in a proper form. That is being worked on. The new police officials are being sent [to Swat], 2,500 ex-army men are being inducted by the police. The badly damaged network of electricity has been restored. The people have now woken up against terrorists.

The feeling is very positive for the government and very negative against the Taliban and the main thing is that their strength has been broken. Previously, operations were done and their [Taliban] main foothold was not destroyed. Now even their training centres have been destroyed. The other challenge for the government is the settlement of the IDPs [internally displaced persons] and to stop the regrouping of the Taliban.

FT: You think you are now in position to stop the regrouping [of the Taliban]?

RM: The registration of the IDPs [from Swat that] we have done provides us family details [of residents in Swat]. Now we have a method [through] where we are putting everybody to a litmus test. Even the family of Fazlullah [Taliban militant leader of Swat] has been identified.

You can see that they [Taliban] feel insecure and sent their families away. I feel their [Taliban] backbone has been broken. The Pakistan army has done a very good job, the law enforcement was wonderful, and for the first time, there is a very clear message to militants that the government means business.

FT: As you go deeper into Waziristan which is the next stage after Swat, is there a danger of a backlash from Baitullah Mehsud [leader of ‘Tehreek-i-Taliban’ Pakistan or TTP] given that he has been held responsible for a number of terrorist incidents including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto?

RM: The backlash is already there, he is already doing operations in the form of suicide bombings. I think his activities are continuing. After this preliminary operation which is being carried out in south Waziristan and north Waziristan, you are seeing the results. The suicide bombings have decreased, though the threats are there. The good thing is that real time intelligence is being shared by all the intelligence agencies. The ministry of interior is analysing the information. We had 1,148 terrorist threats during this period.

FT: Over what period of time?

RM: Only the last four months.

FT: In the last four months, there were 1,148 threats of terrorist attacks?

RM: Threats through the intelligence [information] of terrorist attacks. They were analysed and those we thought they were about to be matured were passed on to the provinces. That is why as I speak to you, eight suicide terrorists have been arrested recently and two of them only were arrested three days back. One of them [from those arrested three days back] was going to target parliament and the other, an elite [security] agency’s headquarters. You can imagine that with real time intelligence and timely action, we are not only averting it, but we are pre-empting some actions of terrorists.

FT: But having said that, Baitullah Mehsud is still able to go through the barriers and has managed to attack some targets?

RM: The question is over the strength of Baitullah Mehsud. He is hiding now. In my assessment he has become ineffective. Moreover, there is a wedge between him and his own factions. The ‘jirga’ [tribal council] of the Mehsud tribe has warned him that he should surrender. That means they [Mehsud and his followers] are now feeling handicapped.

FT: Do you think it is just a matter of time before you are able to target him successfully?

RM: It’s not just a matter of time. We are looking for him. The moment he comes out he will be targeted.

FT: Do you have enough information now that you can say, you can target him?

RM: I would not like to share [in detail] with the public at this stage. Yes, there is some information, intelligence is very much there. There is some sketchy information. One is authentic, focused intelligence. We are talking of sketchy information. The signals are there. But I have full confidence in the Pakistan army, the frontier corps [the main fighting unit of the army in the north west frontier province [NWFP] where Swat and Waziristan are located] and all the tools of the government, that his days are numbered.

FT: There is a lot of criticism that these high value targets like Fazlullah are still not apprehended, still not caught?

RM: It is easier to criticise. We must praise what our army has done. They have done the job, they have done a real good surgery. If a target is missing, then the government and the law enforcers should not be criticised. To the best of my knowledge, three different attacks were meant for [targeted at] him, and according to unconfirmed news, he has been injured. This is the unconfirmed news I say. I am not saying it is authentic 100 per cent. But how far will he run because this time we have encircled the whole of Swat. It is not easy now. Even if he tries to flea to Afghanistan, well fine, we are on the lookout.

FT: Even if you are not able to get to some of these high value targets, whether it’s Baitullah Mehsud or Fazlullah, are you confident that these people have permanently been blocked and they will never make a comeback?

RM: Let’s look at the realities. The reality is, the terrorists do exist in Pakistan, the reality is TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan] is in Pakistan, the reality is, Al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, the reality is, proscribed organisations are in Pakistan. There is a kind of a syndicate between the Taliban, proscribed organisations and Al Qaeda. They had targeted Pakistan and they wanted to destabilise Pakistan, they wanted to make an Islamic emirate in Pakistan.

I have a question for the international community. Now, every bullet, every Kalashnikov [in Pakistan] is coming [from] across the border from Afghanistan. There are 350 Nurristanis [from Afghanistan’s Nuristan province], 250 Uzbeks [descending from Uzbekistan in central Asia] are with us, we have Libyans, we have Saudi Arabians, we have Yemenis and even people from Maldives have been caught here. It shows this has become a mercenary kind of a war. The terrorists had some objectives which have been frustrated by the law enforcers of Pakistan. Naturally we will keep an eye.

As far as re-emergence or further strength is concerned, our goal is to break their strength and we are doing our best. As far as total elimination is concerned, I think it will take some time.

We are requesting our allies, we are requesting the Afghanistan government, to ensure that the border is sealed and nothing comes from that side. The kind of weapon they are using, the anti-tank mines they are using, the anti-aircraft guns they are using, where are they getting it all from? There is no production factory in Swat. Obviously somebody is supplying them, consistently, persistently.

FT: Who do you think is supplying them?

RM: This is what we are asking the international community, as it’s coming from across [the border from Afghanistan]. They should investigate and let us know.

FT: Do you think the border can be physically sealed?

RM: We were asked to do more one year back. Everybody was saying, do more wherever. We did more. We stopped the Afghan Taliban from crossing over [from Pakistan] to that side[in to Afghanistan]. Similarly we expected they [Afghanistan] would do the same to us. This time not only the Afghan Taliban are coming. We have found many things. Even the arms and ammunition undoubtedly is coming from that side.

FT: Can this be stopped? How do you seal the border?

RM: It will be one of the factors. When you are fighting a war, nobody can predict what is going to happen. You always take necessary measures.

FT: Are you saying that the Americans and the Afghans who are the two major militaries [in Afghanistan] are not co-operating enough?

RM: … What I am referring to is the non-state actors. What we need is that the Afghanistan government must pay some attention and stop their crossing [over the border] to this side [Pakistan]. That is it. Once they stop it, they will know who is behind it. We would also like to know.

FT: You think the Afghan government, given that it is already very weak, is capable of doing this?

RM: I am nobody to comment on whether they are weak or not. What I say, their government is there, they have a border, there is a border police, the system is in place and we need their help. That is it.

FT: What kind of international support does Pakistan specifically need as far as you can tell?

RM: Help us in sealing the border, improve the border control management. We have 1,000 check posts on our side. Afghanistan has got only 100 posts on their side. We would like them to enhance these. We had started the biometric check posts. We are requesting Afghanistan to reinstate them [on its side] so that we know who is coming, who is going. There are 45,000 tribesmen crossing the border every day without logging anywhere, no visa.

FT: Are the Afghans refusing to do this?

RM: They have not been very helpful in the past. But now since I met the interior minister and I had very long discussions with him, we have agreed to an action plan. This border control management is one of the points we have agreed. We have also agreed on the real time sharing of information. We are heading towards the right direction.

FT: As far as check posts are concerned, you are saying there are 1,000 check posts along this more than 2,100kms border. Have you an idea of the number of check posts that need to be created on the Afghanistan side of the border.

RM: We are facing a common enemy who are the terrorists, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban. We have a common enemy but we don’t have a common strategy. Unless the two governments sit together, make a road map of how to deal with these terrorists, this will not work. I think to save Pakistan is to save Afghanistan and to save Afghanistan means to save Pakistan.

FT: It has been eight years since 9/11. Why is it that – as you say – there is a common enemy but not a common strategy?

RM: I cannot give an account of what has happened in the past. Since our government has taken over, you know how fast the president of Pakistan has moved in the world, how he has convinced [others] about the miseries and problems of Pakistan. The way he has started the concept of the Friends of democratic Pakistan is hidden from no one. Our western allies used to say something else. Now they say, yes Pakistan has suffered since the [former] Soviet Union’s war with Afghanistan of 30 years ago. [The] real attention which should have been given by the west has not been given to Pakistan. This is because of President Zardari’s efforts that we are in trouble in a war which was never our option and was imposed on us. The international community has to work with Pakistan so that we can stop this terrorism from spreading across the world.

FT: Earlier today, the inspector general police of Islamabad said that 25 terrorists have been arrested in the last few weeks who were aiming to target different cities?

RM: I would go further on this, not only pointing towards terrorists who were arrested in Islamabad. We have arrested a number of them in Karachi and Lahore during the last two weeks.

FT: Does this not represent a major threat to the cities of Pakistan?

RM: Threats are there, I am not denying that. But the level of threats has been reduced, that is my assessment. I have been always saying consistently for the last one year that we face a danger from the Taliban and they are going to strike, they are not friends of Pakistan. They are neither Muslim nor Pakistanis.

Some of my politician friends made fun of me, that he is scaring people. But the same politicians are now saying, I was right. I was saying on the basis of assessment and intelligence. I think the main back of the terrorists in Swat has been broken. We are now on to Baitullah Mehsud who is on the run. Now his own tribe has gone against him.

FT: The Taliban have used suicide attacks, they have used assassination as in the case of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, they have used bombs. What other kinds of methods do you believe they could use going forward?

RM: As far as ‘Mohtarma’ [Ms] Benazir Bhutto’s ‘shahadat’ [martyrdom], I would not like to comment on who did that. The matter is still under investigation as far as we are concerned. Obviously a commission from the UN is coming to investigate. The matter is in the court. Therefore I should be commenting after their assessment, after their investigation. I will not level a charge against anybody. Let the commission investigate the matter transparently. We want the real murderer, conspirator, the financier to be exposed.

As far as Baitullah Mehsud’s other activities are concerned, obviously we have taken measures. You have seen how effective measures have been taken in Islamabad. Our advice to every provincial government is to be vigilant. Now for example we also suspected something similar [to Swat] situation may arise in south Punjab. We are sharing the information with the Punjab [the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces].

FT: What kind of similar situation?

RM: You know ‘Lashkar-i-Jhangvi’, ‘Jaish-e-Mohammad’ [two groups of Islamic militants associated with Taliban and Al-Qaeda], all those people basically hail from that area. What we suspect [is] perhaps all those terrorists who fled away from Waziristan or Swat might take refuge in south Punjab. We are working on that. The provincial authorities have been fully informed about this situation.

FT: Are you going to do an operation in south Punjab as well?

RM: The intelligence agencies have been alerted, patrolling has been increased. Basically this is the time that we should be collecting the intelligence because we would not like another Swat to develop in Punjab. It is a pre-emptive move. In a similar pre-emptive move, we have informed the provincial government of Sindh[southern province].

FT: As the interior minister of a country which is almost in a state of war, at least in parts of it, with a population of 175m, how concerned are you that some of these terrorists might still be able to carry out very serious attacks. This is a large country, very large population and this is a problem which has evolved over the past 30 years?

RM: If you see historically, knowing the situation, we are going through an insurgency. This is not a normal law and order situation and the rule of law is very important. You can not bring the rule until there is the writ of the government. Basically the writ of the government has been challenged which was not checked by rulers in the past.

We had two options, either to give in and adopt the life of Taliban, or stand against them. The present government decided to stand against them. We knew it was very unpopular, we knew it could create problems. The good thing is that the military leadership and the civilian leadership are in full harmony. Even the political parties in the two APCs [All Parties’ Conference] called by the prime minister of Pakistan created a consensus. This has given a unique and unanimous support to the armed forces of Pakistan which made this operation more successful because the people joined in. Previously, it was not like this.

We have taken pre-emptive measures, we have taken certain security measures, we have also taken measures that we put maximum checking through electronic gadgets. Electronic gadgets means mobile scanners, fixed scanners and with the efforts of the president of Pakistan, we have been able to get about US$280m only to enhance the capacity of the law enforcers.

The first instalment is going to be in about two weeks time. In about six months time, we will have more than 24 hours fixed scanners which we are going to give to big cities so they can fix anywhere. Any vehicle passing through will have checking. If there is explosive it will check, if there are drugs it will check and anybody hiding inside will check.

We have got this from China. We have got $280m in soft loans from China. They have given another $10m in grant. They are very helpful in this. This is going to be great help. Then we will be getting some mobile scanners which can check and give you a signal in any car or even an individual walking. It will help us in identifying arms even in the few houses.

FT: Is this also from China and is it all Chinese equipment?

RM: This is Chinese equipment.

FT: How many cities will this cover?

RM: I’ll cover all the major cities. With mobile scanners we are trying to cover every police station. Then we are also raising a sniffer dog unit and we have spoken to the Belgian government, they are giving one unit. I have also spoken to the German friends. Everybody is coming together to help on this.

FT: Bye end of the year, this system will be in place?

RM: I am very confident. Also, our western allies have given commitment that they will be helping us in enhancing the capability of our police force.

FT: But this $280m is the biggest commitment?

RM: This is the biggest and in hand.

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