Pending debate, military action in NWFP called off

Nirupama Subramanian

Government wants “greater national consensus”

ISLAMABAD: Still struggling to formulate a coherent policy against terrorism, Pakistan has called off a military operation against Taliban militants in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and will schedule a debate in the National Assembly to forge a strategy backed by a “greater national consensus” to tackle the problem.

The decision came after a seven-hour meeting of the ruling coalition partners on Wednesday, chaired by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

It was attended also by Pakistan People’s Party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, and the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who briefed the meeting about the security situation in the NWFP and tribal areas.

Shahbaz Sharif, brother of Nawaz Sharif and Punjab’s Chief Minister, represented the PML(N). The Awami National Party, which rules the NWFP, the PML(N) and the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islami spoke out at the government’s recent decision to use force against militants, and called instead for negotiations to restore peace in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

The coalition partners, especially the JuI and the PML(N), had earlier complained that the government’s decision to launch a limited operation in the Khyber tribal agency was taken without consulting them. Within minutes of the meeting ending, the Army announced an end to operations in Hangu district, where the Taliban killed 17 Frontier Constabulary personnel earlier this month, and is holding 27 hostages.

The Taliban had earlier warned the NWFP government that if the operation in Hangu was not called off, it would retaliate by targeting the security forces. A military spokesman said the operation’s objectives had been achieved.

Clear concern

A statement from the Prime Minister’s office said at the meeting, “There was clear concern that the situation warrants the evolution of long-term policies across-the-board with the full support of all political parties.”A debate on the issue had been a demand of the coalition partners for some time now. The direction in which Parliament would lean when the debate takes place is evident. The meeting decided that the “main thrust” of the government’s strategy would be “political engagement” with the people of the tribal areas, along with more investment in education, employment, development and infrastructure of those areas.

The coalition partners reiterated their determination not to allow terrorist acts from Pakistani territory, or attacks by “external forces” inside Pakistan, a reference to fears of possible strikes in the tribal areas by the U.S.

But Mr. Gilani has the difficult task of convincing Washington when he goes there on July 28 for a meeting with President George Bush that negotiations with the tribals are the best way out of a seemingly intractable problem.

NATO-ISAF forces have been categorical in recent weeks that Pakistan’s ongoing negotiations and sundry peace agreements with the militants are helping the Taliban carry out cross-border incursions.

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