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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Intimations of disaster

By Ghazi Salahuddin
One good thing about President General Pervez Musharraf's address to the nation on Thursday was that he did not appear in his military fatigues. But that was about all. In a visibly sombre mood, he vowed that no more Lal Masjids would be allowed in the future. And he called for introspection on the tragic consequences of the Lal Masjid operation. Introspection? His speech, however, did not offer any serious reflections on how Lal Masjid was possible in the very heart of Islamabad about six years after he had launched his campaign against religious militancy. Nor did he deal with any of the many questions that the operation has spawned. There was no mention of holding intelligence agencies accountable for either their possible role in the making of the Lal Masjid complex or their failure to discover the supply of such a huge quantity of arms and ammunition. Also, he did not refer to the flaming backdrop against which the Lal Masjid emergency had emerged. He is generally wont to pontificate on the dynamics of the situation that he is dealing with. It would be quite appropriate for him to not touch on other issues on this occasion. Still, the operation, with all its ambiguities and mystification, was only one dimension of the present times of turbulence. There is certainly a need to look at the larger picture. Devastating floods in Balochistan and parts of Sindh, woefully under-reported by the media, are bound to have some political repercussions. In any case, the Lal Masjid operation became a traumatic experience for the nation. Most of us would find it difficult to come to terms with it in an emotional context. When we wondered why the government did not take action against Lal Masjid when it repeatedly challenged the writ of the state during the past six months, we were surely not rooting for the kind of operation that it turned out to be. This is what happens when the rulers begin to lose their authority. I will not go into lessons we have learnt or questions we should pose because that would call for an extensive and detailed deliberation. Besides, there is so much else that swirls around us in this turbulent phase of our history. In that sense, it should be useful to consider if Musharraf has won any points in this supposedly successful operation. The liberal opinion is very much in favour of dealing decisively with the militants and increased support for Musharraf's credo of 'enlightened moderation' could be seen as a gain for this embattled regime. But there is no evidence of that happening. In fact, the sense that Musharraf's craving for holding on to power is bound to lead to a major conflagration has deepened. One report published in The New York Times on Thursday had this headline: "After mosque battle, Musharraf's troubles persist". The jihadists now have a reason to be more passionate in seeking his removal and on Wednesday, Ayman al-Zawahri, second in commend of Al Qaeda, urged revenge against the Musharraf government and said: "This crime can only be washed by repentance or blood". Meanwhile, the civil society and the moderate political parties have continued their campaign against the present arrangement. The All Parties Conference, held in London during the time that the national attention was diverted by the Lal Masjid siege, has led to the formation of another alliance to launch a movement against Musharraf. The Pakistan People's Party has opted out of this alliance but though Benazir Bhutto is very candid in her opposition to religious parties and betrays a soft corner for Musharraf, she, too, has rejected his re-election from the present parliament and his uniform. Interestingly, Musharraf is as under-fire in his country as his chief patron George Bush is in the United States. The war against religious extremists and terrorists in Pakistan has gone the way of America's war in Iraq. At about the same time that Musharraf's recorded and apparently edited speech was telecast in Pakistan, Bush was speaking from White House, insisting that America could still win in Iraq. There is one major difference, though. Bush is able to acknowledge his unpopularity. This he did in his speech on Thursday in, as one report said, "a rare moment of public introspection". This is because public opinion surveys are more credible in the US. Our president, on the other hand, likes to assert that the people are still with him. Perhaps this is what his intelligence agencies still tell him. But Lal Masjid has cast serious doubts on what our agencies can do, irrespective of their expertise in spying on judges and other respectable citizens of the country. I had said last week that the Lal Masjid siege may have been timed to distract attention from some other issues, like the judicial crisis, the London moot of opposition parties and the floods. This suggestion would seem to be very insensitive, considering the tremendous human cost of the operation and the misery that it has caused. But I still think that the timing was chosen deliberately. As for the media, it was not allowed any access to the scene of action and even hospitals were kept out of bounds. Still, the electronic media kept us on the edge and sleepless during nights. Now that dust is settling on Lal Masjid episode, though it will scar a large number of poor families for life, other issues are back on the front burner. There is likely to be a better coverage of the floods. As I write this in the early afternoon of Saturday, the chief justice is to visit Lahore by air. Live coverage is not allowed but the independent channels are pulsating with the tempo of an event that brings another illustration of an unprecedented movement that is led by the lawyers. We can expect more questions to be raised about the legitimacy of the Musharraf regime. Only on Saturday, the newspapers reported two significant developments that have come after the Lal Masjid operation. The more surprising is a resolution adopted by the European Parliament. It has warned Musharraf to desist from getting himself re-elected from the outgoing parliament and also asked him to give up his army post. A report from Washington said that the American administration came under intense grilling in the Congress over its support for the Pakistani leader. The lawmakers doubted Musharraf's ability to take strong action against Islamic militants and called for a re-evaluation of US policy towards Pakistan. This means that the Lal Masjid operation belongs in the same category as March 9 and May 12. Let us see what more can this government launch. Please fasten your seat belts.

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