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Pakistani Parliament Meets In Secret To Forge Terrorism Policy

  • Abubakar Siddique

Fighting between the Pakistani military and militants along the Afghan border continues to take a heavy toll.

Fighting between the Pakistani military and militants along the Afghan border continues to take a heavy toll.

Since assuming office in January, Pakistan's new government has promoted a policy of maintaining a credible military deterrent to counter militants in the country's restive provinces, while focusing on negotiations, rapid development programs, and broad political reforms to resolve the problem.

However, the complex domestic security situation and increased U.S. and international pressure have led the new government primarily to resort to force in dealing with the militant threat, while pushing its reform and development agenda into the background.

President Asif Al Zardari has called a week of closed-door sessions for both houses of parliament to find consensus on how to deal with the situation. Skeptics, meanwhile, say that even the implementation of a new counterterrorism policy poses a critical challenge to the fragile coalition government.

The early sessions featured an unprecedented briefing by Pakistani military leaders on October 8 and an opportunity for the legislators to question them the next day.

But concerns were raised by some lawmakers that there was too much focus on "operational issues" and not enough on the country's overall counterterrorism policies. They want to discuss any secret deals the government has with the United States, the prospect of negotiations with militants, and the government's foreign-policy agenda for pursuing peace in the region.

On October 14, opposition legislators complained that that day's session, featuring a briefing by Information Minister Sherry Rahman, had been too superficial and inadequate, according to the Pakistani daily "Dawn."

Clear Policy Needed

Bushra Gohar, a member of Pakistan's National Assembly from the troubled Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), belongs to the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), which is part of the governing coalition. She says that the deteriorating security situation in the country demands a new policy direction.
President Zardari has faced criticism over policy.

"Things are getting out of hand. Especially, from where we come from -- Pashtunkhwa area [a proposed new name for the NWFP] and FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]," she says. "It is very important that certain clear decisions are made and the parliament gives a clear policy direction for the country."

The governing coalition has inherited a complex and expanding Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency along its western border region with Afghanistan.

Suicide bombings are now an almost daily occurrence in Pakistani cities and villages. Despite extraordinary security precautions for the parliament sessions, a suicide bomber penetrated a secure police site in Islamabad and injured eight officers on October 9. Since then attacks have killed more than 50 people.

Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, a senator for the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), tells RFE/RL that the party supports the government's policies. But he notes that the use of military force always comes with unintended consequences.

"The government should follow the path of negotiations so that a political settlement can be found for this problem," Jhagra says. "There is a need for increased development efforts in those [border] regions. You must have noticed that terrorism has actually increased in the country [because of the military operations against the extremists].

Jhagra's perspective highlights the differences over counterterrorism strategy across Pakistan's political spectrum.

Moderate leftist parties of the governing coalition, such as the Pakistan People's Party and the ANP, view extremist militants as the main threat to their country's security.

But right-wing parties within the coalition and opposition view the problems faced by the country much differently. The conservative Islamic Jamiat Ulma-e Islam Fazal Group (JUI-F) and the opposition PML-N, among others, see the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan as the source of the violence that has plagued the country.

Gohar of the ANP maintains that it is high time for Pakistan to change its course both in domestic and foreign policy. "If we are serious about peace in the region, we have to review our Afghan policy -- the way this policy has been," she says. "Because, actually, it created a total mess [and] has put the lives of each citizen of this country at a risk. So it is very important that we review it and we make sure the we don't follow policies of duplicity."

Some experts maintain that although Pakistan publicly joined the U.S.-led war on terror after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, it privately considered its former Taliban allies as strategic assets who could reassert Islamabad's influence once U.S. and NATO troops left Afghanistan. The Pakistani military is also believed to view rival India's growing influence in Afghanistan with great suspicion.