Oct 18, 2008

World - Pakistan,the fog refuses to clear

Nirupama Subramanian

While all parties agree that the country is “facing a grave challenge,” there is no sign that they are all agreed on the true nature of that challenge.

As an important joint session of Pakistan’s parliament continues discussions on the challenge posed by Al Qaeda and Taliban to the state, the fog of confusion surrounding the issues of militancy, extremism and terrorism has stubbornly refused to lift.

The extraordinary joint session of the National Assembly and Senate, only the third in Pakistan’s history to discuss a sensitive issue of national importance, was summoned on October 8 and was aimed at forging a national consensus on dealing with the terror threat to the country.

The session was thought necessary as Pakistan’s polity has been extremely divided over what this threat is and where it is coming from. But going by opinions voiced by some parliamentarians about the confidential session, the divisions between the political parties are intact or may have even deepened. Questions such as what is the threat to Pakistan and where is it coming from are still deemed unresolved. The conflation of the issues facing Pakistan with the opposition to the U.S.-led war on terror continues.

Meanwhile, the call for “dialogue” with the Pakistani Taliban militants has grown louder, even though no one knows what can possibly be offered to a group that has an openly medieval agenda, scoffs at modern notions of nation-state and democracy and has been recently described by a senior Pakistan official as “one and the same” as Al Qaeda.

In the sittings thus far, parliamentarians were first briefed by the new director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, on the operations being carried out in the North-West Front Province and in the tribal areas. At the sitting that followed, they put questions to him. Next, they were briefed by the government on its policy on the terror challenge. A discussion on national security is now ongoing.

If all this was meant to provide clarity on Pakistan’s dangerously deteriorating internal security situation and show the way forward, it is nowhere evident that this is happening. While all parties agree that the country is “facing a grave challenge,” there is no sign that they are all agreed on the true nature of that challenge, leave alone ready to formulate a consensual policy to deal with it.

Opposition parties emerging from the sittings are accusing the Pakistan People’s Party-led government of following the policies set by the previous Musharraf regime, and toeing the U.S. line that more military operations are the only way to clean out the tribal north-west frontier of militancy. The Pakistan Army has recently intensified operations in the Bajaur tribal agency, leading to a massive internal displacement that the U.N. has also flagged. Referring back to the government’s own earlier statements that “foreign” hands — a not-so-veiled allusion to India — are involved in stoking trouble in the tribal areas, some political parties are questioning the logic of military operations in those areas against the Taliban.

PML(N) critical

Bringing its role as the main opposition party to the proceedings, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) has been critical of the briefings, saying they provided nothing more than what was already in the public realm. Incomprehensibly, the party chose not to participate in the question-and-answer session with the ISI chief, which most political observers saw as an opportunity missed to find out more.

Later, party leader Nawaz Sharif sought to strike a more conciliatory note, asking his party men not to oppose everything that came from the government — possibly an indication of an in-the-works agreement for a modus vivendi between his party’s government in Punjab and the provincial PPP — he has also called for a dialogue with the extremists. He has also called on his party to formulate its own position on terrorism, leaving dumbstruck commentators wondering what the PML(N) had been doing all this while when bombs were going off, including in Punjab, its own backyard.

The Jamiat-e-Ulema Islami of Maulana Fazlur Rehman reportedly wanted representatives of the Pakistani Taliban invited to Parliament to present their point of view to the in camera session, leading the Daily Times to ask if Mr. Rehman was equating militants who have claimed responsibility for several acts of terror within the country with the Pakistan Army.

Mr. Rehman, who caters to a pro-Taliban constituency, has been critical of the government’s operations in the tribal areas, especially its tactic of persuading some tribes to set up “lashkars” or militias to battle the militants. This method is said to have contributed to successes on the ground for the military in Bajaur tribal agency, enough to have rattled the Taliban. A suicide attack last week on a tribal jirga in the Orakzai agency that was discussing the setting up of a laskhar against the militants, killing some 70 people, was stated to be a warning from the Taliban to the tribals not to go down that path.

Mr. Rehman is warning that setting one tribe against another in the frontier region could set off blood feuds and a civil war-like situation. At the parliament session, he is said to have called for a ceasefire and offered to mediate between the Taliban and the government.

In a statement plainly intended to sow more confusion in the minds of the parliamentarians, the Pakistani umbrella group of Taliban militants known as the Tehreek-i-Taliban, has offered to “lay down arms” if the government “relinquishes use of power.” For good measure, a spokesman of the group added that “we are sensible people and understand the survival and integrity of our country.” This came as media reported that the military was preparing for an imminent and “decisive” operation in Bajaur.

Those advocating “dialogue” with the militants are also riding the current signals from Afghanistan of talks with the Taliban. Individual commanders of the coalition forces are saying for the first time that the war “cannot be won” and they would not oppose talks with the Taliban. According to reports in western media, the Afghan government is already reported to be in secret talks with the Taliban through the Saudi government.

The ruling party in the NWFP, the Awami National Party, should have played an important role in the proceedings as the voice of secular Pakhtuns. But it is missing in action. It appears to have been completely demoralised by the October 2 attempt on the life of its leader Asfandyar Wali Khan. His unceremonious departure for London, as early as the second day of the session, though described by his party as previously scheduled, has caused dismay among its supporters and evoked contempt from detractors.

As such, after more than a week of sittings of the joint session, there are few expectations that Pakistan will be better off after it.

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