Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pakistani Legislators Show Little Appetite for a Fight

An unusual parliamentary debate organized to forge a national policy on how to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda has exposed deep ambivalence about the militants, even as their reach extends to suicide attacks in the capital.

In one of his first initiatives as president, Asif Ali Zardari called the session in an effort to mobilize Pakistan’s political parties and its public to support the fight against the militants, which he has now called Pakistan’s war.

But instead, the nearly two weeks of closed sessions have been dominated by calls for dialogue with the Taliban and peppered with opposition to what lawmakers condemned as a war foisted on Pakistan by the United States, according to participants.

The tenor of the debate has highlighted the difficulties facing Mr. Zardari and Washington as they urgently try to focus Pakistan’s full attention on the militant threat at a time when the Pakistani military is locked in heavy fighting in the tribal areas.

Mr. Zardari’s predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, who was long both president and leader of the army, never consulted Parliament, and he as well as the fight against the militants came to be seen as tools of American policy and grew increasingly unpopular.

By contrast, Mr. Zardari, as the newly elected leader of Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, will need the backing of Parliament and the public if he is to live up to his pledge to fight terrorism, which he made during a visit to Washington this month.

But the parliamentary proceedings, which included criticism of a lengthy military briefing by a senior general on the conduct of the war, showed that the political elites had little stomach for battling the militants.

In one sign, Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, sent a letter on Monday to the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, calling for dialogue with the militants. The letter suggested a halt in military operations while negotiations were given a chance, according to Ahsan Iqbal, an aide to Mr. Sharif.

In an interview last week, Mr. Sharif said, “What is wrong with talking?”

He said a distinction had to be made between the Taliban, whose members could be talked to, and Al Qaeda, whose adherents could not. A national committee should be formed to decide whom Pakistan should negotiate with, Mr. Sharif said.

Differentiating between the two groups was one of the themes of the debate, according to participants, on the grounds that Qaeda members are outsiders to Pakistan and the Taliban are mostly Pashtuns living in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Even the suicide bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which killed more than 50 people last month, did not provide much of a call to arms. “I thought the Marriott would change everyone’s attitude, but it has not,” said Farook Saleem, a newspaper columnist who supports fighting the militants.

The speeches in Parliament expressed so much opposition to fighting the militants that it was doubtful that the governing Pakistan Peoples Party could engineer an “appropriate resolution,” said Sardar Aseff Ahmed Ali, a senior member of the party and a former foreign minister.

A religious party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, part of the coalition with the Pakistan Peoples Party, voiced particularly strong opposition to the war against the militants, Mr. Ali said.

“They want the army to pull out of everything and start talks with the militants in North and South Waziristan, in Swat,” Mr. Ali said. The army is fighting the Taliban in Swat, a settled region of the North-West Frontier Province, and has fought the Taliban in Waziristan, an area of the tribal belt, which borders the province.

It is possible, Mr. Ali said, that the divergent opinions within the coalition will produce a parliamentary resolution that is “so hugely diluted that the whole exercise is left futile.”

Behind the scenes, the idea of a parliamentary debate was encouraged by the leader of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, as a way to garner political support for the military efforts, according to two Pakistanis familiar with his thinking.

The Pakistani military began a campaign against the Taliban and its Qaeda backers in the tribal area of Bajaur two months ago, an effort that American commanders have applauded as a way to stop the militants from crossing into Afghanistan and attacking American forces.

At a news conference in Islamabad on Monday, the assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, Richard A. Boucher, called the “tough actions” of the Pakistanis “very impressive.”

At a cabinet meeting attended by General Kayani in late July, the civilian government gave the military permission for operations against the militants.

But General Kayani was eager for a parliamentary debate that would show that the army was responding to civilian government, according to the Pakistanis who spoke to General Kayani.

In that vein, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the director general of military operations for the Pakistani Army, who has been selected to lead the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, briefed a joint session of Parliament two weeks ago. The presence of a senior general before Parliament was viewed in much of the Pakistani news media as an encouraging, if small, sign of civilian control of the military.

Over four hours, General Pasha described what the army had done in campaigns against militants over seven years, showed images of militants slaughtering civilians, and said more than 1,500 Pakistani soldiers had died in the operations, according to Parliament members.

But the briefing was poorly received by politicians, who said it revealed little that was new. Lawmakers also criticized General Pasha for not offering a strategy for the future.

Attendance was also poor. The Senate and the National Assembly comprise 442 members, but on one day last week only 40 were on hand, and the speaker, Fahmida Mirza, admonished the politicians for being so desultory.

President Zardari was away on a trip to China last week, and his absence appeared, symbolically at least, to undermine the debate.

Also absent were the minister of defense, Ahmad Mukhtar, and the senior adviser to the Interior Ministry, Rehman Malik, both major figures in the effort against terrorism, who accompanied Mr. Zardari in China. The national security adviser, Mahmud Ali Durrani, was on a trip to India.

In their speeches, the politicians stressed the need for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, said Jehangir Tareen, the leader of a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League.

In its precarious economic situation, with dwindling foreign exchange reserves and high inflation, Pakistan cannot afford a continuing battle against the militants, which has driven away foreign investment, he said.

“The sense of the house is that there is no military solution to this,” Mr. Tareen said. “This is not a war we want to be part of. There is a sentiment that we are being pushed to do all this by the United States. We want this war to end.”