ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's efforts to combat terrorism suffered a major blow Friday when a suicide bomber attacked a tribal gathering that was part of an emerging anti-Taliban movement, killing at least 30 and injuring 100.
Meanwhile, the country's politicians, meeting in a special parliamentary session in an attempt to forge a consensus in the fight against Islamic extremists, were unable to agree on even the most basic tenets of the country's struggle, with many charging that Pakistan is still pursuing an American agenda.
It was the first time that the country's elected representatives have considered the issue formally since 9/11, when former president Pervez Musharraf aligned Pakistan with the United States.
"We feel the new government are defending the status quo, Musharraf's policies," said Khurram Dastagir, a member of parliament from the main opposition group led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. "The military approach has been tried and it has been a great failure."
"Previously we weren't sold out to the Americans," said Faisal Saleh Hayat, a former interior minister under Musharraf. "Today, we are sold out, lock, stock and barrel to the Americans."
The government's inability to unite behind a strategy for combating Islamic extremism and the extremists' counterattack underlined the challenge facing Pakistan and its new civilian government in the face of a terrorist attack this week against a heavily guarded police station in the capital of Islamabad, following the destruction last month of the capital's best-known hotel, the Marriott.
The Pakistani military's inability to halt such attacks has prompted frontier tribesmen to revive their own traditions and form lashkars, or militias, to fight extremists. Clans in both of the tribal agencies that border Afghanistan and in the North West Frontier Province have begun forming lashkars to defend their areas.
The tribal areas are considered the most likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and a haven for Taliban and al Qaida extremists, but Orakzai had been one of the more peaceful agencies.
The latest suicide attack targeted the lashkar movement in the Orakzai part of the tribal area. Some 600 members of the Alizai tribe had gathered in a traditional open-air meeting called a jirga when the bomber struck. Local television reports put the death toll at more than 50. Witnesses said that an explosive-laden car drove into the middle of the meeting. Separately, two rockets fired by suspected militants hit the city of Kohat, which is near Orakzai, injuring at least six.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of victims, many said to be critically injured. According to officials in Orakzai, the meeting was completing the formation of a militia, and the tribesmen planned to demolish the local Taliban headquarters immediately afterward.
"If peace committees are not safe, then who in this country can feel secure?" asked a cleric from Orakzai, Maulana Jamil Hasan.
"It appears that the militants are increasing their attacks as a pre-emptive measure because they think that the Pakistan army and NATO are about to take them on in a bigger way," said Farrukh Saleem, the executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, a policy institute in Islamabad.
The military has been fighting extremists in the Swat valley, in the northwest, for almost a year without defeating them. It was the start of another military operation in August this year, in the Bajaur part of the tribal belt, that inspired a local tribe to rise up to tackle the Taliban themselves, which has spawned a rapidly-growing movement. Lashkars have proved to be effective, as they're familiar with the terrain, often know the militants they're fighting and limit collateral damage.
"The Taliban feels the biggest threat now is from the lashkars, not the army," said Muhammed Amir Rana, the director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, a research organization in Islamabad. "This attack might stop anti-Taliban activities in Orakzai for now but longer term, I think this will boost the efforts to form lashkars across the northwest because these tribes take challenges like this very seriously and they will not bow down."
Meanwhile, the country's elected government remains unable to unite behind a counter-terrorism strategy.
Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, the incoming head of Pakistan's main spy agency, the Inter-Service Intelligence directorate, gave parliamentarians a confidential briefing on the security situation, but some complained that his briefing didn't touch on policy.
"Across the board, MP's from all parties raised questions that, barring a few, were searching and critical," said Senator Khurshid Ahmad, a member of the upper house of parliament from Jamaat-i-Islami, a major religious party. "Many questions remained unanswered, even with regard to military operations. These policies have failed, and they failed in Afghanistan and Iraq."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY: