Cornered PML-N launches bid to limit damage, forced to explain its ties with Taliban and Sipah-e-Sahaba

During the national uproar, the PML-N continues to make failed efforts to control the situation, but without much success.

Cornered PML-N launches bid to limit damage
Source: Dawn Correspondent, 16 Mar, 2010

ISLAMABAD: The entire counter-terrorism effort being spearheaded by the country’s security forces went into a tailspin on Monday following a bizarre statement made by Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif a day earlier, pleading the Taliban to spare Punjab from terrorist attacks, prompting a strong reaction from those supporting the efforts to eradicate religious extremism from the country, with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) making desperate efforts throughout the day to dilute the effects of the controversial statement.

The statement, mainly for its parochial overtone, also came as a rude shock to those who otherwise have their reservations about the army’s efforts to eliminate Taliban, Al-Qaeda and foreign militants from the country’s lawless tribal region.

While Punjab Governor Salman Taseer — for obvious reasons — was the first to denounce the chief minister and accuse him of being an ally of the Taliban, many others thought Shahbaz Sharif’s appeal to the Taliban to “spare Punjab” amounted to justifying terrorist attacks in the rest of the country.

It was amid this raging controversy that the Punjab chief minister had an unscheduled meeting with Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Rawalpindi. What transpired during this one-to-one meeting was not made public, but at least two private television channels, in their late-night bulletins, said the main topic of discussion was Mr Shahbaz’s controversial statement, and its possible repercussions on the army’s fight against religious extremists. One of the TV channels even claimed that the Punjab chief minister was told that his remarks could undermine the entire military operation in which over 2,000 army personnel had lost their lives. Shahbaz reportedly clarified his remarks and claimed that they had been presented “out of context”.

General Kayani has expressed his displeasure over the statement issued by the Punjab Chief Minister regarding the Taliban, DawnNews reported.

He expressed these sentiments during the meeting with Shahbaz Sharif.

According to DawnNews sources, the Punjab Chief Minister, explained to the Army Chief that his statement regarding the Taliban had been twisted by the media. He claimed that he did not support nor did he want any alliance with the Taliban.

After his meeting with the army chief, the Punjab chief minister clearly avoided talking to the waiting journalists at Islamabad airport and quietly left for Lahore. Even on his arrival in the Punjab capital he refused to say anything in front of the cameras.

However, several senior members of his party took pain throughout the day in defending him. Party’s secretary general Iqbal Zafar Jhagra’s logic was that since Mian Shahbaz Sharif was the chief minister of Punjab it was understandable that he only spoke in terms of his province while referring to the Taliban’s actions in the country.

An official statement issued by the Punjab government, quoting the chief minister, indirectly criticised the media for what it said was an incorrect interpretation of the statement. “I had expressed my views on incidents of terrorism in Punjab and bomb blasts in Lahore. Therefore, I also referred to Punjab in my speech which some persons tried to twist to their own liking,” the clarification quoted him as saying.

“I have always talked about Pakistan and have also stated on numerous occasions that the proud people of NWFP were fighting for the survival of Pakistan,” Mr Sharif said.

But the Punjab governor was not impressed. He described the chief minister’s statement as an attempt to create divisions within the federation. Expressing regrets over Mr Sharif’s statement, Governor Salmaan Taseer said that the PML-N had proved that they and Taliban were ‘natural allies’.

“The chief minister’s statement gives an impression as if the PML-N and Taliban are like brothers,” Mr Taseer wondered. He was talking to journalists after attending the convocation of Pak-Aims on Monday. He said the federal government’s foreign policy on war on terror was independent and it was not the duty of the chief minister to form foreign policy of the country.

“The president and the prime minister have made it clear that we will not quit the field in fight against Taliban and extend full support to the army. On the one hand our jawans and citizens are being martyred in the war on terror and on the other Shahbaz Sharif is pleading before them (Taliban) to spare Punjab,” the governor said and questioned the chief minister as to what message he was trying to give.

“We are first Pakistani and then Punjabi, Sindhi, Baloch and Pathan. Shahbaz’s statement gives an impression that Taliban should spare Punjab and carry out terror activities in other provinces of the country,” he said.

The reaction in other parts of the country was even stronger, with many members in the provincial assembly of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) lashing out at the Punjab chief minister for playing politics with the war that had been imposed on the country by religious extremists.

During this uproar, those from the PML-N continued to make failed efforts to control the situation, but without much success.

Political observers say it’s difficult to say what may have prompted Shahbaz Sharif to make such remarks. However, many of them were convinced that it had done more damage to the PML-N and its politics in nearly three years than all other actions.

However, if there was any consolation, a TV report quoted the PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif as saying in London that he regarded the Taliban as mercenaries and “paid killers”, thus suggesting that he too was on the side of the army and government as far as dealing with religious extremism and terrorism in the country was concerned.



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