A MAN who would love to walk in the fields, break bread with his party workers and take gur-wali chai with Bahadar mama, while canvassing for votes in his native constituency in Charsadda district during the 2008 elections campaign, is now confined to a house in Islamabad, few people outside his trusted few know.
In his own words, it is like he is sitting in a telephone exchange, working the phones, picking up and answering cellphones to speak to party leaders, give them directions and mobilise his own election campaign.
“This is how we are running our election campaign; picking up dead, carrying their funerals and taking the wounded to hospitals. This is an election where we are constrained to do door-to-door campaign or hold corner meetings.”
This is Asfandyar Wali Khan, whose secular Pakhtun nationalist party has borne the major brunt of Pakistani militants — the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan — which has listed Awami National Party at the top of its hit-list, followed by the PPP and Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
The ANP leaders, candidates and workers are the prime target in a wave of suicide bombings, attacks and targeted killings. One of the party’s leader and candidate was killed along with his minor son after Friday prayers in Karachi, while others face an almost daily assault in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
And he is bitter — understandably so. “Where is the level-playing field when three parties are on the hit-list and four parties have been given a freehand,” the 64-year-old politician from Walibagh argues, while referring to Nawaz Sharif’s PML, Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and Jamaat-i-Islami.
“Can one call these elections free, fair and transparent when Hakimullah Mehsud (the TTP supremo) decides the rules and tells us which party will and which party will not contest elections? Who is the referee here? Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim or Hakimullah Mehsud?”
The TTP says it is targeting the ANP for its secular and liberal politics, its pro-American policies and its support to military operations in tribal regions and districts of Swat, Buner and other areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“I don’t regret doing it,” a defiant Asfandyar counters. “If given a chance I will do what my party stands for. This is not a fight between Asfandyar Wali Khan and Hakimullah Mehsud or the rightwing and leftwing. This is a war between two mindset and it is for the people to decide whether they want to side with those who want to bring the Taliban system in Afghanistan or those who believe in plurality, diversity and democracy.”
If the Taliban believe that democracy is kufr, then why target three political parties and spare the rest, he asks. But then, he ventures to answer the question himself. “2014 is round the corner, when the US-led forces in Afghanistan are scheduled to withdraw. The militants want to keep secular and liberal forces out so that we don’t have any say in future policies and decisions to be taken.”
But he warns that those who believe that “everything will be hunky-dory after 2014 when the Americans would leave the region; they are living in a fool’s paradise. This will not happen.”
He says the ANP is being hit “left, right and centre” because it is standing in the way of this mindset. “We are paying a very high cost,” he says. “Not because we followed the American lines.”
He recalls how a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher had gone bad over ANP’s decision to enter into an agreement with militants in Swat. “I asked him; wouldn’t I look like an idiot if I tell you to let me run New York? That’s a very polite way of telling me that I am an idiot,” Asfandyar recalls of his conversation with the American diplomat.
But subsequent events in Swat proved that his party was right. “I give Boucher the credit that he called afterwards and apologised.” He criticises those who accuse his party of the current state of affairs in KP. It was during the MMA rule when militants had taken over Swat and set up a parallel administration all over the province, he counters. And it was during the MMA rule under its chief minister Akram Durrani, when the military had begun to deploy in Swat, he points out. “Where were those political parties when the militants were slaughtering people in Green Chowk, Swat?” he asks.
“Had we not supported military action in Swat, it would not have been peaceful and normal as it is now. We have established the writ of the state in KP. There is no parallel administration anywhere now. We supported military action and you have peace in Bajaur, Mohmand and Kurram.”
There are many party leaders who believe Pakistan’s military establishment and its intelligence apparatus have abandoned a party that stood with it like a rock in the war on terror and has thrown it to the wolves, but nor Asfandyar Wali Khan.
“There are a few places left including North Waziristan but to say that the military should withdraw all its forces from Pakistan’s eastern borders and deploy them on the western border from Chitral to Jandola in the tribal regions would be illogical and unwise. I feel that the direction (of the war on terror) is right, though the speed with which it is being fought may not be (right),” he maintains.
He is happy with Gen Kayani’s April 30 speech on Youm-i-Shuhada at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. “I had a sound sleep that night. Gen Kayani said that it was our war and that’s what we have been saying all these years.”
He also defends his decision of calling the multi-party conference to call for talks with the Taliban. He says the TTP had come under pressure after the assassination of ANP’s senior leader Bashir Ahmad Bilour and offered to open talks. “We called their bluff,” he argues.
But the JUI-F moot, he claims, was an attempt to neutralise ANP’s initiative and sabotaged it in order to use it in the election campaign.
Asfandyar brushes aside accusations of poor performance by his party-led government and charges of corruption. “If our performance was so bad, if it was zero, why not let the people judge us, why kill us?” he asks.
He is also not worried over prospects of poor performance in the Saturday’s elections. “The militants would want us to boycott the polls but we are not going to run away and leave the field open to their like-minded parties – the ones they favour. It does not matter if we get two seats or no seats at all.”
But even he pauses for a minute to answer when he is asked if his party would accept the results of May 11 elections. “We will see what they (the militants) do to us on the polling day. But our workers are committed and morale is high. We have posters which says “kafan ya watan! We find ourselves in a battle with our hands and feet tied while the other side is free to strike wherever he deems fit.”