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Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Pakistan's war on terror, the discussion in the parliament and the political point scoring by PML-N and PML-Q - Nasim Zehra

Parliament's role in fighting terror
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Nasim Zehra

The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst

Almost two weeks into the in-camera session on the security situation, and especially the tribal areas, many questions regarding its usefulness are being raised. For example, are we closer to having evolved a better policy response to Pakistan's security problem? Are we closer to having evolved a policy for the tribal areas that is any different from what the government has hitherto been pursuing? Are we headed towards greater and broader political ownership of policy? Is there a greater national consensus behind ownership of the policy?

There are no straightforward answers to these questions, simply because the in-camera session is only one of the many elements within the broader policy formulation and policy implementation context in which there are many other elements influencing policy and its implementation.

For example, the briefing has been taking place against the backdrop of significant actions. These have ranged from major military operations in Bajaur and Swat to a peace agreement between the warring groups in the Kurram agency; from high-level engagement with the United States government on operational-level cooperation, including training and equipment, to ongoing negotiations within the Tripartite Commission framework on Pakistan-Afghanistan border issues; from ongoing dialogue with Kabul to the convening of the Pakistani-Afghan mini-jirga; from the emergence in the tribal areas of the local lashkars now disenchanted by the militant leadership they had earlier supported to the Oct 14 fatwa by the Muttahida Ulema Council in Lahore declaring that suicide bombing is un-Islamic and only the State has the right to declare jihad.

All these factors underscore the important reality that under discussion in Parliament is an ongoing situation. The challenge and the policy under discussion is one that Pakistan has been confronted with for over half-a-decade. Consequently, there is also a response dynamic, however flawed and inadequate, that is already at work. This is a major limiting factor in a situation if the political demand, as in this case, of a section of politicians would be to go back to the drawing board and draw a fresh policy. Such a demand and expectation would be inherently flawed; one that fails to appreciate the dynamics of policy formulation and implementation. However, what would be more practical if the critics of the existing policy would recommend potentially more effective policy alternatives. Such an undertaking would require a coherent and logical presentation, backed by facts and experiential wisdom, of recommended policy alternatives.

The response of the politicians from the non-ruling parties, especially the PML-N and PML-Q, has combined political point-scoring with some serious engagement with the process issues related to the briefing. Meanwhile, the diminishing interest of the PPP parliamentarians prompted the Speaker to urge them to take greater interest.

On the process issue, the PML-N made a major contribution towards making the present session into a genuinely parliamentary discussion session. Originally the government had planned it to be a limited purpose session in which the Parliament would be presented the ground situation by the Director General of Military Operations to be followed by two questions each from all present political parties. The government responded positively to the PML-N's recommendations. These included that the Q&A be spread over a day and be followed by another presentation by a government representative presenting the government's present and mid-term threat perception and its broader impact on the country, the contents of the Pakistan-US cooperation agreement and recommended policy options to deal with the situation. As a consequence the briefing has extended into a two-week plus session. That the session was extended on the opposition's demand and all representatives are getting an opportunity to participate in the discussion means that a democratic exercise in underway. The process of debate and dialogue is intrinsic and crucial to genuine democracy. To that extent the session is a plus.

However, how valuable this session is for policy formulation and, indeed, for public good and overall national security will depend on its final outcome. And that depends largely on the non-ruling parties. The government has conceded to their process recommendations and these non-ruling parties must demonstrate to the public that they have practical wisdom to a policy that is already in operation. It is a policy that now seems to be showing some mixed results but criticisms too are aplenty.

Policymakers and parliamentarians, however, do not have the luxury to indulge constantly in rhetoric and points-scoring. For the positions that they acquire through public vote, the parliamentarians opt for a constitutional undertaking to be responsible for competent management of state and society through appropriate laws, structures and processes. This is what the public now expects from the parliamentarians as they debate the security problem in the Parliament.

Some of the point-scoring is almost inevitable. The PML-Q, PML-N and others from the non-ruling parties have been repeating their criticism of the tribal area policy and also of the in-camera briefings. They mostly insist that "this is not our war" and demand that Pakistan discontinue its close cooperation with the US on this war on terrorism which is now being fought on Pakistani territory. They demand dialogue with the militants and argue that because of pro-US policies Pakistani security forces have launched military operations in the tribal areas against Pakistani citizens and killing many innocent civilians.

The parliamentarians' criticism of the briefing has been that the information regarding the ground situation and policy content provided to them has already been available in the public arena. For example, they complain that they have not been provided any new facts regarding the government's commitments made to the US about Pakistan's clearance to US operations in the tribal areas and support to US operations in Afghanistan. The PML-N and PML-Q may not be entirely wrong. Yet this criticism alone will only signal poverty of serious and responsible politics. There are enough information and facts available to the non-ruling parties to make detailed, viable and concrete suggestions for improving the existing security policy especially dealing with the tribal areas. The PML-N will soon be suggesting to the prime minister to set up a smaller all-parliamentary committee which must get a more detailed briefing on the security situation and the committee should make concrete recommendations for policy improvement.

To the extent that this will keep all the parties involved in a dialogue process over the question of security this would be a positive move. However, as concrete recommendations for substantive policy improvement those have not been forthcoming from any political party. It is time that Pakistan's political parties get more serious about what it takes to run the business of state and society. It certainly takes more serious and competent mind work. Rhetoric and good intentions alone won't do it. (The News)

Email: nasimzehra@hotmail.com

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