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Military to share secrets with MPs

October 08, 2008

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ISLAMABAD, Oct 7: The two houses of parliament meet in a rare in-camera joint sitting on Wednesday where the military will share with politicians secrets about why blood is flowing with such abandon in a messy war that neither side seems winning.

But given a tradition of distrust between the generals and the politicians, the whole truth about Pakistan’s role in the so-called “war on terrorism” may not be told in only the third such secret sitting of the National Assembly and Senate in Pakistan’s parliamentary history.

Unlike normal parliamentary sessions where issues are debated upon, it will be an army general who will only brief members of the two houses and could also answer their questions before a likely rounding up speech by Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, who arranged the sitting in response to consistent opposition criticism of the six-month-old elected government’s handling of the conflict it inherited from a discredited military-led regime.

The sitting is due to begin at the National Assembly chamber at 5pm and there was no official word on Tuesday about its duration — although one parliamentary source said it could last two to three days.

National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza, who will chair the sitting, will meet leaders of parliamentary groups at 3pm to possibly decide the duration of the sitting, which will also be witnessed by some prominent political figures from outside parliament, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and leaders of some parties which boycotted the Feb 18 elections, parliamentary sources said.

Parliamentary groups of the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party and opposition parties will hold their own separate meetings afterwards to plan their line of action.

For the first time in 20 years, the press gallery will be empty during a parliamentary sitting, making it a political elite affair whose story will be sought to be told through the jargon of an official press release.

The first such secret joint sitting was convened in 1974 by then-prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to discuss the situation after anti-Qadiani riots, which led to a constitutional amendment that declared the Qadianis, or Ahmedis, outside the pale of Islam. A similar session was convened in 1988 by then-prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo before signing the Geneva peace accord on Afghanistan that earned him the ire of military president General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq who sacked him months before he himself was killed in mysterious plane crash.

Director-General of Military Operations, Lt.-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, will brief the sitting about the progress of anti-militant operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and internal threats of terrorism, a military source said.

But political sources said the parliament members would like to be told about how the militants sympathetic to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and Afghanistan’s formerly ruling Taliban movement gained sway in most of the Fata’s seven administrative agencies in the past few years under the nose of heavy military deployment in the region, how they turned the country’s tourist paradise of Swat into killing fields, and even spread terror in cities like Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Lahore through their devastating suicide bombings, and who provides them the sinews to confront what claims to be one the world’s best fighting machines.

There may also be queries about the Dec 27, 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in a suicide attack blamed on the now banned Pakistani chapter of Taliban and the possible whereabouts of bin Laden, his top associates and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar since Pakistani intelligence ostensibly lost track of them after the October 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

While military briefs politicians at the parliament house, Islamabad has still not recovered from the shock of Sept 20 suicide truck bombing outside the nearby Marriott Hotel that killed more than 50 people. And Thursday’s suicide attack that ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan survived at his native Walibagh, in Charsadda came as challenge to his party’s traditional policy of non-violence.

There is bound to be a lot of explanation and questioning about Pakistan’s role as an ally of the mainly Western US-led coalition against terrorism, particularly in the context of recent rocketing on alleged militant hideouts in Fata by American or Nato predators based in Afghanistan, at least one incursion by American ground troops, and the latest agreement for joint patrols on the Pakistan-Afghan border.

The joint sitting seems to be a clear departure from the past years of the conflict when politicians had little say in Pakistan’s military role in the matter after former president Pervez Musharraf aligned Islamabad with the US-led coalition soon after 9/11 in a controversial U-turn without consulting even his political allies.

But only time will tell if the expected parliamentary debates after the secret briefing will contribute to any policy review by the present government, which says it has already changed course from only use of force to a three-pronged approach to deal with the militants – talk to and make peace with those who lay down arms, engage in economic development of the deprived tribal areas and make selective use of force against those who refuse to surrender.

The new military leadership has made it known it would place ground realities before the political leadership so it could decide the kind of strategy to be followed.

Among 17 non-parliament figures invited to the sitting will be Pakistan Muslim League-Q president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Jamaat-i-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed, former Balochistan chief minister Ataullah Khan Mengal, Pakhtunbkhawa Milli Awami Party president Mahmood Khan Achakzai, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf chief Imran Khan, Baloch nationalist leader Abdul Haye Baloch, and National People’s Party chief Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi.

Among government figures invited for the occasion are provincial governors and chief ministers and the president and prime minister of Azad Kashmir.