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DAWN - Features; 19 April 2005

April 19, 2005

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An uphill task

HIS handshake is firm. He gives the impression as if he has known you for ages. “I am a very nice man,” he starts off. But then with a grin, he asks you not to spoil it for him.

This is Khalilur Rehman, the 25th governor of the North-West Frontier Province.

Known to his friends and acquaintances as ‘commander’, a sobriquet he earned for heading the navy in Bahrain, the oil-rich Gulf state, the former naval officer he has been climbing steadily up the ladder in the corridors of power.

Unheard of before his appearance in the political limelight, Commander Khalilur Rehman made a quiet, unnoticed entry into the power game courtesy his friend and former chief minister, the late Mir Afzal Khan.

A sugar baron, Mir Afzal belonged to that class of politicians who had come to bank more on their contacts in the right places than public support. Mr Khalilur Rehman must have learnt a lesson or two from his late friend and political mentor. He contested and won a seat in the Senate, and it was said that money had flowed freely during the campaign.

The 71-year-old has not looked back since then. Like a good sailor, he has been able to swim with the tide and steer his political career away from troubled waters.

He joined the PML-Q and using his influence, became the deputy chairman of the Senate. The ailing octogenarian Wali Khan had once said that anybody with Rs200 million could stake a claim to the prime ministership of Pakistan. This was when the lower house consisted of 217 legislators.

But to his credit, Commander Khalil also has lots of charm as a laid-back, casual, happy-go-lucky man and uses this to influence people who matter. However, he will find that his new assignment requires more than just personal charm. Governorship is serious business and all the more in a province like the NWFP that has its own geopolitical peculiarities, particularly the seven tribal regions that straddle the Afghan border.

It would be unfair to judge the performance of a man who has been in office for just about a month, but the spate of notifications issued by him and his handling of the administrative changes in the Governor’s Fata Secretariat that looks after the tribal regions’ security and development work has left much to be desired. He had to grapple with the MMA’s wheel jam strike, but meetings with transporters failed to yield anything.

His letters to the provincial government criticizing it for breaking its promises, though bold as an initiative, were ignored by Chief Minister Durrani.

The Senate by-elections scheduled for today (April 19) are all but decided in favour of the MMA. The man who had so skillfully worked for his own victory amid heavy odds has not been able to save the seat vacated by him.

Beyond the Frontier, the governor has yet to undertake a visit to Fata, a region he is constitutionally required to look after on behalf of the president. He is yet to make up his mind on who to post to the office of political agent in the volatile South Waziristan tribal region, where the incumbent, faced with threats to his life, has become nearly redundant

It would be a delicate, tightrope walk for the governor to correctly understand and assess the situation in the tribal region and the sensitivities involved vis-a-vis the military which is equally involved in both development and security in the tribal areas to avoid getting caught in a turf war with the military bosses.

These are issues that would need Governor Khalil’s acumen. It would take more than a firm and gripping handshake for him to handle the region’s problem and come up to the expectations of those who have appointed him to this coveted but difficult job.