ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — For the sixth time in a month, Pakistan fell victim to a devastating suicide attack on Saturday, heightening concerns about the stability of a pivotal front in the war on terrorism.
The surging violence, which has left nearly 45 dead in recent weeks, has raised new concerns about a counter- terrorism strategy dominated by the military, analysts say, and reinforces those who say that civilian government is a crucial but missing voice.
The military has traditionally been seen as the only bulwark against rising extremism. And even though it has reversed its policy, offering truce to militants instead of war, neither tactic has worked, according to critics and international observers. The longer General Pervez Musharraf remains at the helm of the state, critics say, his regime will continue to address the problem of militancy with unilateral decisions that may fan the fires of extremism rather than put them out.
"A civilian government would pursue a policy of power-sharing, coalition- building, alliances, and promote ownership in government," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Science. "If you have a genuine, open political system, you create competition against extremists. The extremists would be ostracized."
Since 9/11, when Pakistan became a key US ally in the war on terrorism, its counterterrorism policy has mostly been conceived and executed by Mr. Musharraf's military apparatus, with the political and financial backing of the White House.
The Musharraf government, many analysts note, has made a substantial effort to fight militants within its own borders and provide support for US operations in Afghanistan, a significant turnabout from its pre-9/11 stand of supporting Afghanistan's Taliban regime.
But after years of full-scale war against militants failed, leaving hundreds dead on both sides, Islamabad dramatically reversed its strategy five months ago. Amid raised eyebrows, it released weapons and militant prisoners who sympathize with the Taliban in the restive enclave of North Waziristan, extracting in return vows of peace. The truce was never debated before parliament, something that caused concern among members of the opposition parties.
Pakistan's military, then, as now, called it a novel political step for peace. "I think the deal is the right step that should have been taken," says Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukut Sultan.
But a growing chorus of critics, including a steady stream of American officials, says that the deal has rendered North and South Waziristan the haven for Taliban and Al Qaeda militants that Afghanistan once was. Officials in Washington are concerned that the area, which shares a porous border with Afghanistan, is now home to several training camps that have boosted Al Qaeda's tactical capabilities, according to a report Feb. 18 in The New York Times.
On Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became the highest ranking US official to express her concern.
"Frankly, there have been some problems and some disappointments with that plan," Ms. Rice told lawmakers in Washington on Friday, referring to the September truce.
Concerns about rising militancy were reinforced on Saturday, when a suicide bomber killed 15 people in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan Province, 120 miles from Kandahar, an Afghan province and a Taliban bastion. It was the deadliest of 10 recent bombings in several cities in the past month. Police are still investigating, but fear the blasts showcase the expanded reach of militant groups working in coordination.
Against the backdrop of violence, Islamabad's failed deal, critics say, evinces the kind of blunt, ill-conceived decisions that military regimes often make.
"Military regimes don't have nuances. It's not in the military's training," says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director at the International Crisis Group. Scores of serving and retired generals staff key government positions, and Musharraf, despite promises to retire his uniform, continues to serve as the head of government, observers point out.
This expanding militarism has shrunk the space for civilian political actors, making it impossible for communities and local governments to have input in national decisions.
"Although Musharraf projects himself as the only thing standing between him and extremists, he is part of the problem," says Mr. Rais. "Musharraf has demonized political parties. He has strangled political options."
As a result, Rais and others say, extremism has extended into new areas, becoming a kind of political expression in its own right for some.
"Terrorism is a statement. It has become part of the political process," says Rais.
It is a characterization that Pakistan denies. "If the militants have grown in strength, it is because of the problems in Afghanistan," says General Sultan.
But while the military projects itself as the best way to root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda, some fear they are keeping those forces in their pocket as continued leverage over Afghanistan, particularly in the event that international forces cut back their presence.
There is also the concern that, so long as the Army is in control, Pakistan will continue to see militants as an extension of state policy, as it has in the past, critics claim. For years Pakistan's military cultivated the Taliban as a tool for power leverage inside Afghanistan, as it did militants in Kashmir, a Himalayan territory to which both Pakistan and India lay claim.
"[Civilian government] is better from the point of view that it relates to the masses. It takes the people along with them," says Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general and now political analyst in Islamabad. "A military regime doesn't represent the people. It operates in a vacuum."
Pakistan's upcoming presidential elections, tentatively scheduled for September, offer a unique opportunity for a turnaround, observers argue.
In the meantime, antidotes rest in trying to integrate the virtually autonomous tribal zone. "Extend the writ of the state through courts and law enforcements. You have military bases nearby. Why don't you arrest people? That sends a far better signal than [bombings]," says Ms. Ahmed.