Partisan bickering leads to impasse

The attempt to get a political consensus in Pakistan in the "war on terror" has backfired spectacularly.

Security officials inspect the site of a suicide blast at a police station in Mingora, near the troubled Swat region.
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ISLAMABAD // The attempt to get a political consensus in Pakistan in the "war on terror" has backfired spectacularly, as a special session of parliament has shown only discord. An in-camera meeting of parliamentarians, which started last week, has so far shown there is little chance of agreement on the anti-terror struggle. It has, instead, exposed the rifts between those who believe the country is fighting "America's war" and the apparent minority who think it is Pakistan's war; as well as the divide between those who want to go to war and those who seek a negotiated settlement.

Parliament has been briefed by the army on operations and by a minister in the government on policy, but representatives are deeply unhappy and the debate looks set to continue into next week. As the politicians bicker, the insurgency in the north-west continues to burn and suicide bombings create terror across the country. And this while Pakistan sinks into an economic crisis, which sends the rupee to new lows on a daily basis and has put the price of food beyond the reach of millions.

The parliament session was called by the Pakistan People's Party, which leads the coalition government, ostensibly to forge a cross-party consensus on the anti-terror strategy. In reality, said members of the assembly, the idea was to get the other parties to back the existing strategy, which has seen the Pakistan army launch operations against militants in Bajaur, part of the tribal border area with Afghanistan, and in Swat, a valley in the north-west.

"This is just an effort to justify the status quo," said Khurram Dastagir, a member of parliament for the biggest opposition group, which is the party of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister. "Unless there is a substantial change of policy, the people of Pakistan will not be put out of their misery." Mr Sharif's party called for talks to be opened with the Pakistani Taliban, dropping the government's precondition that it would only have dialogue with those who "laid down their arms".

In place of consensus, it seems that the Pakistan People's Party is essentially isolated. Even two of its key coalition partners, the Jamiat-e-Ulama-I-Islam (JUI) and the Awami National Party have made clear they do not have faith in the current policy. "The signal to the army will be very bad if it gets no consensus backing," said Faisal Saleh Hayat, a former interior minister under the previous regime of Pervez Musharraf.

The leader of the hardline Islamist JUI, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, demanded that, because the army had given a presentation to parliament, the Taliban should be allowed to address legislators as well. An editorial this week in the Daily Times, a Pakistani paper, said: "This means that he [Rehman] wants the Pakistan Army to be put at par with the people it is fighting in the Tribal Areas. Is this his idea of 'justice'? When it comes to choosing, will he support the terrorists and spurn the army?"

The Taliban agreed with Maulana Rehman. Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the militants, said this week it was pointless to debate the security situation in parliament without bringing in the Taliban's view. "What is the use of discussing the situation without talking to us?" he said. Omar also offered the government a ceasefire - only if the army halted its operations and suggested that the Taliban would thereafter help clear out foreign militants, ie, al Qa'eda. However, the Pakistan Taliban has repeatedly shown a willingness to sign deals, which they have no intention of keeping.

It was Mr Musharraf who took Pakistan into Washington's "war on terror". Bizarrely, even the party formed specially to support Mr Musharraf, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which led his government, now says Pakistan is pursuing a policy that is too pro-American. They say the current administration, led by Asif Zardari, the president, has gone further to please the United States than Mr Musharraf ever did.

"The majority of the people of Pakistan do not see it as our war. We are fighting for somebody else and we are suffering because of that," said Tariq Azim, a former information minister in the Musharraf government. "At the moment, the only ones toeing the line are the People's Party." What Mr Musharraf's former acolytes do not point out is that he never consulted parliament on security policy. That is because national security, particularly policy towards India and Afghanistan, has never been in the hands of politicians in Pakistan.

And, just because parliament is holding a debate now, does not mean that civilians are in charge suddenly. Parliamentarians were briefed by an army general and only received a ministerial presentation after demanding it. The army still decides the policy, most believe inside and outside parliament, and that raises the delicate issue of whether the military has really cut its ties with jihadist groups that it nurtured over many years.

"There are still training camps, still [terrorist] sanctuaries, still cross-border movement in the tribal area," said Bushra Gohar of the Awami National Party. "There's duplicity, at some level, in our policies."