Wednesday, Feb 08, 2023

‘There is some back channel contact between India, Pak PMs on private level’

In this Idea Exchange Hamid Mir, Shafqat Mahmood talk about why the army won’t intervene against Nawaz Sharif.

Against the backdrop of heightened tension at the Indo-Pak border, Hamid Mir, executive editor of Geo TV, and Shafqat Mahmood, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, talk about why the army won’t intervene against Nawaz Sharif and why the South Asia chapter of al-Qaeda is dangerous. Against the backdrop of heightened tension at the Indo-Pak border, Hamid Mir, executive editor of Geo TV, and Shafqat Mahmood, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, talk about why the army won’t intervene against Nawaz Sharif and why the South Asia chapter of al-Qaeda is dangerous.

Against the backdrop of heightened tension at the Indo-Pak border, Hamid Mir, executive editor of Geo TV, and Shafqat Mahmood, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, talk about why the army won’t intervene against Nawaz Sharif and why the South Asia chapter of al-Qaeda is dangerous. Moderated by Deputy Editor Seema Chishti 

Rakesh Sinha: This round of shelling between India and Pakistan has been the worst in a decade. What’s your view?

Shafqat Mahmood: I had anticipated this four-and-a-half months ago, when Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister. As a politician, if you have cultivated the image of an iron man, then there is a compulsion to live up to it. Ministers such as Rajnath Singh gave strong statements. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval talked of offensive defence. Something happens every year, a bit here and there, but it started to escalate. They started to escalate on all the working boundaries rather than on the LoC. There is a feeling here that (use of) force would mean the other side would not retaliate. There is a danger that if there is miscalculation, this thing will flare up.

There is also a misconception in some quarters in India that the political set-up and military (in Pakistan) are not on same page. I don’t represent the government but the opposition. However, when it comes to national security, political parties, military and civil society are on the same page.

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I was a little disappointed that the Foreign Secretary-level talks were called off because of a reason that to my mind does not seem enough. Because if your objective is to improve relations, even if there are things that you did not like, there was no reason to call off the talks. That was a bad sign after Nawaz Sharif came here (for Modi’s swearing-in) despite some opposition back home. Now there is a stalemate at the top level, and then there is this thing heating up on the working boundary. On the working boundary, military-to-military contact can be revived. An opportunity is coming up next month, at SAARC in Kathmandu.

Seema Chishti: On India, is the political establishment in Pakistan completely on the same page with the military or security establishment ?

Hamid Mir: If you analyse the events of 10 years, I think there has been a consensus at least on one issue — relations with India. This is true of all major political parties, and military leaders. When we talk about our relations with India, we cannot ignore the Kashmir issue, which should be resolved through talks, not war. There was an opportunity for former PM Manmohan Singh; he never visited Pakistan. Pakistani presidents and PMs visited India and we were hoping that Singh would visit Pakistan, and were anticipating a breakthrough. That’s why Pakistan was ready to announce MFN (most favoured nation) status for India. We missed the opportunity because Manmohan Singh was not very powerful.


Coomi Kapoor: Do you feel journalists have it easier in India or Pakistan?

Hamid Mir: I don’t know what situation you people are facing. More than 100 journalists have been assassinated, murdered or killed in the last 12 years in Pakistan, because its was the frontline state against terror.

Shafqat Mehmood: Hamid himself was hit by six bullets.

Hamid Mir: I am carrying two bullets inside my body.


Shubhajit Roy: What is the inside story regarding the assassination attempt on you? Your brother said it was the handiwork of a government agency but later backtracked.
Nobody backtracked. The Pak PM established a judicial commission to probe and I appeared in front of that three times. Whatever my brother said, I endorsed, when I was able to speak. Before the attack, I named some people, that if I am attacked, they would be responsible. I said the same thing to the judicial commission and my brother said the same thing.

Rakesh Sinha: The Tehreek-e-Insaf has had a stand-off with the government for long. But it is not moving the way you probably planned it.

Shafqat Mahmood: The whole thing started not as demanding Nawaz Sharif’s resignation; it called for an independent inquiry into the election because we felt that it was rigged. And then because he refused to budge on this question, it morphed into a call for his resignation.

Hamid Mir: The impression in India is that the Pakistan army and Sharif are enemies of each other. There is also an impression that it was Pakistan army which forced Imran Khan to sit in against Sharif because they don’t like his India policy. Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif was in a position to intervene, to topple the government, but he never did. So that is the secret of his survival. Sharif didn’t survive because he is popular or strong, but because the army wants democracy in Pakistan.

Muzamil Jaleel: Is there any backchannel on still?
Hamid Mir: There are some back-door channels between the PMs of Pakistan and India, not at the diplomatic level but some private level. I think they should maintain this kind of contact. Maybe, in the coming few days when, according to my information, the PMs meet in Kathmandu, something positive could come out through these non-diplomatic backchannel contacts.


Muzamil Jaleel: What is the whole story about the Pakistan Taliban’s allegiance to ISIS?

Hamid Mir: There is a lot of misunderstanding in India. A lot of experts here, including some who worked as National Security Advisor, said the ISIS and Taliban are cooperating with each other. The ground reality is entirely different. What is ISIS? Okay, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. They may have their own ‘Amir al-Mu’minin’, which means the ruler of all the Muslims over the world. But in 1994, the head of Taliban, Mullah Omar, announced himself as ‘Amir al-Mu’minin… Osama bin Laden also accepted him as their Mu’minin. Most security experts in South Asia are not able to understand that ek myaan mein do talwarein nahin ho sakti (there can’t be two rulers at the same time)… If one Amir al-Mu’minin is already there from 1994 and another has emerged in 2014, he is a farzi (fake) Amir al-Mu’minin. He is a traitor. So, ISIS and Taliban are in opposite directions.


Why have some elements in the TTP (Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan) announced their support for ISIS? Because they are not happy with the policies of the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistan Taliban are fighting with the Pakistani security forces. There is one chain of command in Afghan Taliban, they obey the orders of Mullah Omar, but the TTP has more than 20-22 groups with different Amirs. If some elements in the TTP are announcing their support for ISIS, they are actually trying to blackmail Afghan Taliban. So, this is a contradiction. They are suffering from internal contradiction, differences, which is good for all victims of their terrorism.

Muzamil Jaleel: Are there contacts between ISIS and TTP?

Hamid Mir: The former spokesperson of the TTP, Shahidullah Shahid, issued a statement a few days ago. He said he had announced his support for ISIS three times through three different people. That means he is not in direct contact with ISIS. You must understand that the Afghan Taliban have been in alliance with al-Qaeda for a very long time, and that TTP and al-Qaeda have not been on the same page for a very long time because they think that we should fight against America, not against the Pakistani security forces. Ayman al-Zawahiri, currently the main face of al-Qaeda, recently announced Asim Umar as the head of the South Asia chapter of al-Qaeda. He is an Indian Muslim, that is his only qualification to became the head of al-Qaeda’s South Asia chapter.


Nayanika Chakraborty: You’ve met both Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Can you tell us about the interviews?

Hamid Mir: The Taliban movement emerged in Afghanistan in 1994. In 1995, I was travelling with then PM Benazir Bhutto to the US. Bhutto met ambassador Robin Raphel in New York. We came to know that Raphel asked Bhutto to announce her support to the Afghan Taliban. It was very disturbing. I wrote a column from New York that here is the first elected woman PM in the whole Muslim world, the Afghan Taliban are imposing a ban on girls’ education, and she had been asked by Robin Raphel, another woman, to announce her support for the Afghan Taliban.

When we were coming from New York, the PM called me on the plane and said ‘You are criticising me’. I said, ‘Yes, this is democracy, I don’t like Taliban and you are supporting Taliban at the behest of Raphel’. So she asked her Interior Minister to brief me why the Taliban are good for Pakistan.

After a few days, the Interior Minister organised a briefing for me and Nusrat Javed, a colleague, and explained that we were using the Taliban as the “pipeline police”. We wanted a gas pipeline from Uzbekistan to Pakistan and there was nobody who could protect it because the government in Kabul, the Northern Alliance, was supported by the Indians and the Iranians and they might destroy the gas pipeline… I said okay, I would like to meet Mullah Omar. The Interior Minister said okay.

I met him in Kandahar. When Mullah Omar asked me why I wrote against him, I said because he was supporting the Americans. I said Raphel was supporting him. He asked who is Raphel. I said she is a lady. He said, ‘There is no power and no strength save in Allah! A lady is supporting me! (laughs)”. I was astonished he was not aware Raphel was American.

He said, ‘If I fix your meeting with a big enemy of America, then will you write that I am not an American agent?’. I asked who is that enemy. He said bin Laden. That was end of 1995 and bin Laden was not in Afghanistan at that time. He came to Afghanistan in May 1996, then the government of Benazir Bhutto was toppled in November 1996. Sharif came to power and in March 1997, I was contacted by the Information Minister of the Afghan government, Amir Khan Muttaqi. He said do you remember your meeting with Mullah Omar? I said yes. He said he made a promise to you and he is a man who always fulfills his promise. So that’s how my first meeting with bin Laden was organised in Tora Bora.

Seema Chishti: And you also met bin Laden after 9/11.
Hamid Mir: No, I met him again in 1998. When I was going to meet him, I was arrested by the Taliban, because they came to know I would interview him. And in those days, they were under pressure by the Sharif government to impose restrictions on bin Laden under American pressure… The police station I was detained in was attacked by al-Qaeda. So I came to know about the internal differences and contradictions. And then after 9/11, in November 2001, I met him again.

Rakesh Sinha: Tell us about your meeting with bin Laden.
Hamid Mir: I asked him many questions, including why he organised the attacks on New York and Washington. He did not accept responsibility but praised those who were part of the attack, and then he criticised the Pak government’s policies. There was a rumour that bin Laden was married to Mullah Omar’s daughter. He said no.
There was a change in his attitude. When I interviewed him in 1997, he was not talking about Palestine or jihad against America. In 1997, he was proposing a regional alliance between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and China. His thinking was strategic. But after 9/11, when I met him, he was talking about Khilafat, Palestine and jihad against America.
There was a big contradiction between his actions and his way of speaking. Whenever I met him, I got the impression I was meeting a ladykiller. Very smart, very charming.

Raj Kamal Jha: Do you think bin Laden’s death made a substantive difference to al-Qaeda, to terrorism in the region?
Hamid Mir: He was a threat to peace in the region. He had not been issuing audio and video messages for long, but he was making contacts with groups not only in tribal Pakistan but in Somalia and Iraq also. And this Asim Umar, the head of the South Asia chapter, was also in touch with them. The Americans discovered documents at his hiding place. It was found that he was in contact (with others). He was trying to organise more attacks, not in this region but outside.
After his death, al-Qaeda was shattered but now they are re-organising. I think this new South Asia chapter of al-Qaeda is very dangerous. We should not underestimate it… If India and Pakistan, god forbid, fight with each other, it will be the ultimate beneficiary.

It can organise a big attack in India, a big attack in Pakistan, maybe in Afghanistan.

Shafqat Mahmood: We keep hearing from some Indian officials that if there is another terrorist attack in India, another largescale terrorist attack like in Mumbai, that may provoke an all-out war. There are forces in the region who would like to provoke such a war. So it won’t surprise me if they either try to provoke an attack in Pakistan and link it with hardline elements here, or the other way around. We have a common enemy, and that common enemy is these terrorists.

Monojit Majumdar: What more can you tell us about Asim Umar? Have you met him?

Hamid Mir: Yes, I have. I met him first in 2005. I was visiting Afghanistan. Those days, the Afghan Taliban were in control of Andar district of Ghazni province. I was visiting the tomb of Mahmud Ghaznavi. Somebody there contacted me, it was a taxi driver. He asked me, ‘Oh, you come on Geo TV’. I said yes. He said, ‘Amir sahab wants to meet you’. I asked him who Amir sahab was. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we will not harm you.’ I then asked him what kind of story he was talking about. I agreed to meet the man. Our crew moved towards Andar, and I met some people there. Asim Umar was one of them. They had an offer for me. They said, ‘If you stay with us, we will organise an attack on the US army and you can film that attack. It will be a big story.’

I refused. They agreed to let us go but asked me to report that they had not allowed the Karzai regime to work in the district. Then they introduced me to Asim Umar, ‘Meet Asim, you can talk to him in Urdu,’ they said. Umar started talking to me in Urdu. He gave me a book. When I looked at it, I saw it was written by Asim Umar himself. I still have that book, which had a message inside — “Hadia khuloos Hamid sahab (respectfully for Mr Hamid), arz (from) Asim Umar”.

I thought these people look like illiterate fighters. How can they publish such a book on the history of jihad and other things? Then I started following him. After a few years, in 2007, I met him again in North Waziristan. He was forced to leave Ghazni province because he had developed differences with a local commander. The commander alleged he was an Indian spy. So the Pakistan Taliban protected him and he came to Pakistani tribal area. Now he is absent. But recently I received a lot of literature written by him, both in English and Urdu. When I met him in 2007 in North Waziristan, some of his colleagues told me he was from Ahmedabad. His family moved to Delhi, from where Asim Umar went to Dubai. He later went to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. He married somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and has some kids. He must be in his 40s.

Raj Kamal Jha: You said Sharif survived because the Pakistan army never intervened. Why didn’t the army intervene?

Hamid Mir: Because there is a historical background. Whenever the army has intervened, Pakistan has suffered multiple problems. There are the three major wars — the 1965 war, General Ayub Khan was in power; the 1971 war, Gen Yahya Khan was in power; Siachen heights was captured by India, General Zia ul-Haq was in power. Then the 1999 Kargil operation created a lot of tension, Nawaz Sharif was in power then but Pervez Musharraf was responsible… There were four military dictators in Pakistan, and unfortunately all of them were supported by India and America. They had good relations despite the fact that we had wars in their regime. Gen Ayub Khan had Tashkent agreement with India, Gen Zia ul-Haq started cricket diplomacy with India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited in 1978, he was foreign minister at that time. Then Musharraf had very good relations with you.

Four military dictators ruled Pakistan for more than 33 years and 22 prime ministers ruled Pakistan for 32 years. So this is the reality. Many people say that politicians are corrupt and weak. But the reality is whenever the politicians were ruling Pakistan, they added some territory to the map of Pakistan. Like Gwadar, which was not part of Pakistan. It was part of Oman, and a very weak prime minister, his name was Feroz Khan Moon. So we think that Pakistan can survive only with a true democracy.

Shafqat Mahmood: In fact, if you look at some of the statements we made beforehand, Imran Khan himself and others, it was emphasised again and again that we are launching this movement for a constitutional change. Our movement to get the election annulled and have Sharif resign was not predicated on any kind of expectation that there would be any military intervention.


Among Pakistan’s best-known journalists, Mir recently survived an assassination attempt, the judicial inquiry of which is still on. The executive editor of Geo TV has interviewed Osama bin Laden thrice, including soon after 9/11, and Mullah Omar.

He follows politics, terror and geo-strategy in the region closely — and boldly — through his shows. He has valuable insights to offer on India and Pakistan at a time when firing is on at the border and diplomatic channels between the countries appear frozen.


Shafqat Mahmood, a leader of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which recently led massive protests against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is a member of the Pakistan National Assembly.

A former civil servant, Mahmood joined the Pakistan People’s Party in 1990, served as minister in General Musharraf’s government, and then took to journalism for a decade before joining the PTI.

Transcribed by Pallavi Chattopadhyay, Dipankar Ghose, Aditi Vatsa and Nayanika Chakraborty

First published on: 19-10-2014 at 00:01 IST
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