ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan is in a leaderless drift four months after elections, according to Western diplomats and military officials, Pakistani politicians and Afghan officials who are increasingly worried that no one is really in charge.
The sense of drift is the subject of almost every columnist in the English-language press in Pakistan, and anxiety over the lack of leadership and the weakness of the civilian government now infuses conversations with analysts, diplomats and Pakistani government officials.
The problem is most acute, they say, when it comes to dealing with militants in the tribal areas that have become home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Although the political parties and the military all seek a breather from the suicide bombings and nascent insurgency that have roiled Pakistan in recent years, there are fundamental disagreements over the problem of militancy that they have not begun to address, Pakistani politicians and Western diplomats say.
The confusion is allowing the militants to consolidate their sanctuaries while spreading their tentacles all along the border area, military officials and diplomats warn. It has also complicated policy for the Bush administration, which leaned heavily on one man, President Pervez Musharraf, to streamline its antiterrorism efforts in Pakistan.
If anyone is in charge of security policy in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, Pakistani politicians and Western diplomats say, that remains the military and the country’s premier intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, which operate with little real oversight.
While the newly elected civilian government has been criticized for dealing with the militants, it is the military that is brokering cease-fires and prisoner exchanges with minimum consultation with the government, politicians from the government coalition, diplomats and analysts said.
Politicians in both the provincial and central governments complain they are excluded from the negotiations and did not even know of a secret deal struck in February, before the elections.
“You see a lack of a coordinated strategy between the federal level and provincial level, and that includes the ISI and the military, who are clear players,” said one Western diplomat with knowledge of the tribal regions, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. “You see it even on principles of negotiation and combined strategy.”
One newspaper, the weekly Friday Times, satirized the situation with a front-page cartoon showing the country’s main political players riding in a plane, all issuing different instructions.
Since coming to power in February, the fragile coalition government, run by Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, has been engrossed in internal wrangling over removing President Musharraf.
The coalition is barely functioning after half its ministers left the cabinet in May in a dispute over whether to reinstate 60 high court judges dismissed by Mr. Musharraf last year.
For now it is just accepting the military’s decisions regarding the militants, said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general who is now a political analyst. He characterized the country as suffering from “institutional paralysis and a dysfunctional government, signs of which are showing already.”
The American commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan K. McNeill, also described the government as “dysfunctional” just before leaving his post earlier this month.
“I have a feeling that no one is in charge and that is why the militants are taking advantage,” Mr. Masood said. “It is a very dangerous situation because what is happening is the Afghan government is getting desperate.”
The frustration is such that President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan threatened this month to send troops into Pakistan to pursue Pakistani militant leaders.
That Pakistan’s government appears broken is not surprising, analysts say. Pakistan’s civilian institutions were atrophied by eight years of military rule, and the country’s major political parties were left rudderless by the absence of their leaders, who lived in exile much of that time. The assassination of Ms. Bhutto in December left her party in even deeper disarray.
The military remains the country’s strongest institution, having ruled Pakistan for about half of the country’s 61 years of independence. But it is proving to be an increasingly fickle and prickly partner for Washington. United States and NATO officials are still struggling to decipher the intentions of the army’s new chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Last fall, at the time of his appointment, American officials spoke approvingly of General Kayani, who seemed well aware of the threat the militants posed to Pakistan, and of the dangers of peace deals that have allowed the militants to tighten their grip in the tribal areas. But despite at least $12 billion in aid to Pakistan from Washington for the fight against the militants since 2001, General Kayani has recently shown a reluctance to use the military for counterinsurgency operations, suggesting that the task be left to the much weaker tribal force, the Frontier Corps. He has encouraged the civilian government to take the lead.
Part of the confusion stems from the shift in power from military rule, after President Musharraf stepped down as head of the army in December, to the new civilian government, one Western military official said. “Kayani is being careful not to get too far out in front and is trying to determine who is in charge,” he said. “We all are.”
The uneasy balance between civilian and military authority was demonstrated this month when the finance minister, Naveed Qamar, revealed details of the defense budget to Parliament for the first time in 40 years. While Mr. Qamar called it a “historic moment,” the document was a mere two pages.
Parliament, tied up with budget negotiations until next month, has not discussed security or militancy. “We do understand this is the biggest issue, and after the budget session it will have to be addressed,” said Farah Ispahani, a Pakistan Peoples Party legislator.
Meanwhile, the military under General Kayani has quietly pursued its own policies, politicians from the government coalition, diplomats and analysts say. The military and ISI negotiated a little-known truce with the tribes and militants of North Waziristan just days before the Feb. 18 elections, a senior government official in Peshawar confirmed.
The deal was so secretive that few in the government know its contents even today. “The civilian government is in the back seat, or not even in the back seat,” said the Western diplomat, who did not want to be identified because of the critical nature of the remarks. The military also began negotiations with the most powerful of the Taliban commanders, Baitullah Mehsud, in January, just weeks after the government accused him of masterminding Ms. Bhutto’s assassination.
An official agreement with the Mehsud tribe has not been completed, but the military has already pulled back from some positions, put in place a cease-fire and exchanged prisoners with the militants.
Western officials are suspicious of the deal. Mr. Mehsud is accused of dispatching scores of suicide bombers in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the agreement initially included no prohibition on cross-border attacks.
Only after strong pressure from the United States and other allies did the military insert such a clause this month, according to a senior official close to the negotiations. In the meantime, cross-border attacks increased by 50 percent in May, NATO officials in Afghanistan say.
The provincial government in the North-West Frontier Province has also expressed its reservations about the deal. Officials from the Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist party that leads the government in the province and which is also part of the national coalition, complained that they have not been included in the military’s decisions.
“Our main demand is that we should be included in negotiations,” said Wajid Ali Khan, a party official. “We don’t know with whom they are talking.”
Moreover, the central government’s point man for counterterrorism, the acting interior minister, Rehman Malik, has appeared to have an uneven grasp of developments.
This month he announced in Parliament that the peace deal with militants in the Swat Valley, just outside the tribal areas, had been scrapped. But he retracted the statement the next day, after the provincial government insisted the deal was still on.
Officials of the Awami National Party have complained that his comments undermined their negotiating position. Afrasiab Khattak, a senior official of the party, and other party officials are confident they can make the peace deals in their province work. But few believe that the deals brokered by the military in the tribal regions will last more than a few months, including military officials themselves, senior government officials in Peshawar say.
More fighting and violence is almost certainly on the horizon. What the plan will be then, no one seems to know.