With peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban on the agenda, newly-appointed Khyber Pakthunkhwa Governor Engineer Shaukatullah Khan does not plan to shy away from the traditional tribal jirga system as a platform for dialogue.
The media’s focus on him is not without reason – Khan is the first civilian from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) to be appointed governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan’s restive northwest.
Listing peace as his top priority, Khan is in favour of talks with the Taliban even if they are unwilling to lay down their arms, citing tribal customs.
“I believe the peace process is heading in a successful direction. I would be willing to take on any task to hold peace talks with the militants,” he said. “Peace is our priority and we shall go for it.”
At the age of 42, Khan, who hails from an influential family of Nawagai in Bajaur Agency, is the youngest among his predecessors to have governed the region, hit badly by militancy and unrest.
The engineer, with a political background, is well accustomed to politics in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
A graduate of the University of Engineering and Technology in Taxila, Khan first contested and lost the NA-43 Bajaur Agency seat in the 2002 elections. However, he won the same seat in the 2008 elections as an independent, and was made Federal Minister for Sports. He was later nominated Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions.
His family’s political legacy is also impressive: his father, Bismillah Khan, had twice won the NA seat from Bajaur Agency, while his elder brother, Hidayatullah Khan, is a senator.
Now, with dialogue between the government and the Taliban becoming a greater possibility, the governor’s appointment is considered the key to success.
The governor believes that the traditional tribal jirga, which equally allows for negotiations with or without guns, is the best way to resolve the longstanding conflict between militants and the Pakistani government and military.
“If we go by tribal bylaws of resolving conflict, we should be holding peace talks whether one does or does not lay down arms. There is no bar on it,” he said.
“I believe first we have to kick start the process. Then we shall discuss the conditions, as in the tribal way to resolving disputes, you may not start with pre-conditions or guarantees,” he explains. “When you start talking, then you enter the next phase of guarantees.”
‘Army isn’t going anywhere’
But if Khan is in favour of unconditional talks, then in his eyes that holds true for both sides. Despite a repeated call by tribesmen for the military to withdraw from Fata, the governor is in favour of the army maintaining a prolonged stay.
“It’s our army…it may go and stay anywhere. The tribal areas are part of Pakistan, so the Army can stay there forever,” he declares. “It had been there since the British era, we have cantonments there and the paramilitary troops had always been there.”
Asked whether the tribal people support the military or the militants, he explains: “It’s very clear. The army could not have won so much success if the tribesmen had not been supporting it. It’s their army, so obviously they are with the army and not with the terrorists.”
“The headway in the last five years in the tribal areas is evidence that tribesmen are with the armed forces,” Khan adds. “The sacrifices we and our army have offered for peace are matchless.”
The governor, however, does add a caveat, saying that it was former military dictator General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and his decision to launch military operations which disturbed peace in the tribal areas.
“It was a one-man jury’s decision and it was incorrect,” he explains. “We are still paying the price for the decision today and its fallouts would continue to haunt us,” the governor says. “Elected representatives were never on board. If Parliament would have taken a decision at that time, it would have been different.”
Khan believes the interference of “foreign hands” has also played a hand in the increasing unrest and violence in the region.
“No doubt the foreigners who arrived during the Afghan War are one the major factors for trouble in FATA,” he says, adding, “The arms and ammunition they get clearly points to a foreign hand and the involvement of the enemies of Pakistan. The endless supply of weapons is a question of concern.”
The governor also termed US-led drone strikes in Fata counter-productive for peace efforts.
“Being a tribesman myself, I would say it is more harmful than effective,” he says. “We have taken it up on all forums and are also likely to go to the international court of justice to stop them.”
Speaking about the Pakistani Taliban’s demand to release their top commanders under Pakistani detention, the governor is cautious: “The peace talks would not be the decision of one man being a governor. All the stakeholders, Parliament, officials, the armed forces, all would have to be on board to play their role.”
Khan explains further: “Look. It’s the state which is going to talk (to the militants). And if the state is initiating the peace process, acceptable guarantees are also needed from the other side (Taliban) as well,” he said in reply to a query about the militant’s demand of presenting Nawaz Sharif, Fazlur Rehman and Munawar Hasan as guarantors.
“Still, if peace talks with the Taliban are initiated in an unrealistic way, it could have serious repercussions.”
Dismissing controversies about his appointment, he declares: “I am very much (a) legal (appointment) being a Pakistani citizen, so fanning conspiracy theories regarding my appointment would not do any good.”
He also rejects the notion that tribal parliamentarians have failed to play their role in resolving the Fata conflict.
The development of the tribal areas and the education of every tribal child is my priority, he explains. “The extension of the political parties Act to Fata would help in strengthening the democratic process in tribal areas, and the next elections would be held under party symbols,” the governor says.
With some Herculean tasks ahead of him during a period of continuous terrorist attacks and operations against militants, Khan remains optimistic: “Things are improving and have improved in the last five years. And they will get better,” says the determined governor.