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Profile: Major Amir’s nine lives

Updated April 06, 2014

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Major (retd) Amir. – File Photo
Major (retd) Amir. – File Photo

THE PPP has survived two dictators and the PML-N one, but how many democratic set-ups will a retired army man with a penchant for publicity outlive?

This is a question that many in Islamabad are asking as retired Major Amir has made his return to the national scene, nearly 25 years after he first strolled on to it.

Part of the first committee that the government constituted to reach out to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the retired army officer has clung on to his role as a peacemaker even after the committee was disbanded.

Despite not being a part of the second committee constituted by the government, he continues to attend its meetings, be they in Waziristan or Islamabad.

In a way this is understandable.

Said to be close to Nawaz Sharif since the days when the latter was the establishment’s protégé, the third time prime minister and the retired army official are now seen to share common ideological ground — that a dialogue with the Taliban will lead to peace.

What Major Amir brings to the table is the strong network of seminaries his father had established in the northwest of the country, including the main one at Panjpir, near Swabi.

“Major Amir has connections with numerous militant groups as well as TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst.

“Many Taliban are followers of the late Maulana Tahir, his father, or are associated with the network of seminaries run by his brother, Maulana Tayab,” she adds. “The government wants to utilise his influence.”

And as a key member of the first government committee, he cleverly ensured his views dominated the stories on the negotiations.

For instance, when the media initially reported that the first committee was to be disbanded and a stronger one formed, many stories attributed this proposal to Major Amir, something that other members hesitatingly contradicted.

“We were all of the view [that the first committee should be replaced by a second, more representative one that could negotiate on behalf of the government] but some committee members are simply on very good terms with the media,” said one, on the basis of anonymity, when asked if the suggestion had come from Major Amir.

But it was not just the media that the Inspector Clouseau lookalike could twist to his purpose; his unofficial participation in the second committee shows that he is equally capable of influencing the government.

And his ambiguous status — like honorary ambassadors of the UN — means that he will be there for the photo-ops and the sound bites, but will not get blamed if something goes wrong.

The government says his inclusion was inevitable.

“He was inducted by the interior minister with the approval of the prime minister. He is extremely useful,” says Federal Information Minister Pervez Rashid when asked about Major Amir’s presence during the meeting in Waziristan that was held in the recent past.

Major Amir does not deny his influence either, name-dropping with ease.

“Alhamdulillah, I have personal and ideological relations with the Taliban as well as with the government and the army. When we proposed that the government dissolve the earlier committee, the PM asked what if a need arose for our role in the next committee and I volunteered myself.”

Others however take a less kindly view.

Senator Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the PPP, insists that his party continues to be haunted by the Operation Midnight Jackal and those involved in it.

Even some security officials are not too thrilled. “Major Amir is nothing but a former head of the Islamabad office of the ISI. He tapped then prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s telephones in order to topple her government. Later he became close to Nawaz Sharif because ‘the enemy of the enemy is a friend’,” said a senior security official.

However, the latter conceded that Major Amir is “influential among the hardline Islamists and as far as influence is concerned, considered second only to the Haqqanis of Akora Khattak.”

Indeed, Major Amir has always courted controversy and publicity.

He came to the limelight when the first PPP government was struggling to hang on to power after Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law had come to an unexpected end. Though the party had the numbers in parliament, those who had helped Zia rule for over a decade weren’t willing to let go.

And among the various attempts to cut the civilians down to size was also the Operation Midnight Jackal.

Stripped bare of its various details, it seems as if the operation was run by Major Amir and Imtiaz Billa to buy, tempt and coerce PPP supporters away from the treasury benches to Nawaz Sharif’s side, who was then the establishment’s man out and out.

But a sting operation (said to be carried out by officials loyal to Benazir Bhutto) revealed the ISI’s plan and Amir and Billa were eventually sent home without their uniforms — something he denies as he says that he was not part of the operation and was cleared by the army.

But the habits he picked up in those heady, conspiracy-filled days, he has not lost.

He has maintained his contacts with journalists who are regular diners at his house. He continues to supply them with stories and information.

No wonder he has stayed alive in the (primarily) Urdu columns even before these committees were created. And television anchors who fill airtime by allowing retired officers to spill the beans on bygone conspiracies have made him a recognised face with his drooping eyelids, white shalwar kameez and many memories (flawed or not) of the 1990s when Islamabad’s politics was even more Byzantine than now.

It is not a coincidence that Hamid Gul, a former director general of the ISI, calls Major Amir “brilliant” and “a passionate Pakistani”.

One can only hope that the definition of a passionate Pakistani has changed a wee bit since those days.

But if history repeats itself, Major Amir may once again be part of a mission that is destined to fail.

As Talat Masud, a retired lieutenant general, points out: “What the Taliban are demanding is unjust. I don’t think that Major Amir alone can carry these talks to success.”

But, in the meantime, the publicity hungry major will get another five minutes of fame.