The tense standoff between the Pakistani Army and clerics and suspected militants at Islamabad’s Lal Masjid mosque finally ended in blood shed with the Army using tanks and small artillery fire to storm the mosque and kill the deputy chief cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi. The total loss of life has been put at 150 with dozens of Army personnel losing their life in the siege. The siege and the trouble leading to the siege has been brewing for months with the Government exchanging terse vocabulary with the Lal Masjid clerics, who themselves had undertaken a anti-vice campaign in the capital city and were adamant on imposition of the Islamic Sharia law in the country. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was left with no clear options than to storm the mosque with the clerics asking for free passage for foreign terrorists holed up in the mosque, which was clearly unacceptable to the pro-US Musharraf regime and for Musharraf’s personal ‘moderate’ credentials. That said the fallout of the siege, though enjoying the support of a majority of Pakistani civil society, will severely influence the longevity of Musharraf’s regime and the pincer effect has finally taken a stranglehold on the eight year old dictatorship.The genesis of this present face-off is the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001. At that time Musharraf had switched sides from being a Taliban backer to a frontline ally in the war against terror. The persuasion to shift was more because of the threat from the Americans to “wipe Pakistan off the face of the Earth” rather than a new found realization of the perils of Islamic fundamentalism. This shift in policy was however a clever smokescreen. The Taliban, while being removed from the Afghan territories, were replanted by the Pakistani ISI to safer locations along the Afghan-Pakistan border and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Some of the radicals, as it now turns out, were also accommodated to safer locations close to the power centre in Pakistan and the Lal Masjid seemed like a favorable venue for this collection of Islamic fundamentalists. Coupled with local clerics who were increasingly taking a hardline view of Islam and the present day Lal Masjid became the virtual Taliban Embassy in Islamabad. All this while Musharraf was claiming to be a victim of terror and showing his country’s active involvement in removing extremist elements from Pakistan. The overt show of support for the US’ war on terror along with the covert support for Jihadi elements has ensured that Musharraf did not enjoy the support of either grouping. In such a situation an inevitable showdown was all in the making.The showdown between the Army and the militants and clerics of Lal Masjid has raised some serious questions for the Pakistani establishment. Were the Lal Masjid clerics not propped up by the ISI? It is important to note that the ISI headquarter is barely a mile away from the controversial mosque. This either shows a support of the ISI for the clerics or a catastrophic intelligence failure on part of the ISI who could not notice a build up of weapons and arms. A striking similarity between the buildup in the mosque and the intelligence agencies turning a blind eye is with the buildup of arms and ammunition by Sikh radicals in the Golden Temple in 1984 where the local police and law and order agencies turned a blind eye for a cause that they felt was just. If one were to take the similarities further and compare the unfortunate fallout of Operation Bluestar of 1984 with the events of Operation Silence in Pakistan of 2007 then it certainly does not bode well for Musharraf. The pressure on Musharraf has already begun, today Al Qaeda’s second in command Ayman Al-Zawahiri has called for the end of his regime. Al-Qaeda will definitely step up its activities to take out Musharraf whom they are blaming for the violence that was witnessed during the Lal Masjid siege and have labeled him as an infidel who is being played at the hands of the Americans. The US will also find it difficult to increase pressure on Musharraf to take steps towards bringing an end to military rule in Pakistan and move towards a representative democracy. The Americans will understand that the siege has made Musharraf more vulnerable to Al Qaeda and home grown terror groups who seem to have turned on the military regime. In such a state it is also likely that radicals within the Army may be convinced that Musharraf needs to go and a coup against Musharraf would then become inevitable. The fallout of the siege will also ensure that the ISI will now see this as the end of Musharraf and may even switch sides to the Islamic elements within the armed forces. Both possibilities will be disastrous for Musharraf and for the nascent movement towards democracy with assemble elections slated for October this year.Analysts have also argued that Musharraf played out Operation Silence to not only redeem his moderate credentials to the world but also to defect personal criticism from the fallout of the sacking of the former Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikar Chaudhary. Either way Musharraf has ended up with a far greater problem that he was facing prior to the Lal Masjid face-off. The US State department’s open backing of the military regime will further deteriorate Musharraf’s stand as terror elements will want to show the mosque siege as an American sponsored operation. So what are the realistic options that Musharraf can activate? First and foremost will be to strengthen his control further over the Army, a hint of a possible coup against him will be the end of his regime. The second most important step would be a realistic move to democratic change by which he may forego some of the absolute powers he enjoys in return for him remaining the head of state. It is also high time that the imposed exile on key political leaders like Nawaz Sharif is ended and both Sharif and Benazir are allowed back into the country to contest elections. If Musharraf manages to maintain a stronghold over the Army, he will not need to worry about the outcome of the elections in October. The Pakistani establishment since independence has been the ones calling the shots and democratically elected leaders have on most occasions - be it Pakistan going nuclear or the Kargil incursion – acted as rubber stamps or worst still been kept in the dark. In such a reality that exists in Pakistan, news reports of a possible ‘understanding’ between Musharraf and Benazir vis-à-vis the impending elections will further weaken the Musharraf regime. Musharraf turned a new leaf overnight after the US led Multinational Forces invaded Afghanistan post the September 11 attacks, the time for a repeat and to turn a new democratic leaf, which is the only way Musharraf can realistically stay in power. If he does not go down the democracy route chances are that the regime might implode or worst still Al Qaeda may just get lucky on its new man topping their hit list.
posted by Dr. Karan Thakur @ 5:49 AM