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Not the full picture: Lal Masjid commission report

April 23, 2013

IN its recently released report on the 2007 showdown between the state and militants holed up inside an Islamabad mosque, the Lal Masjid commission has absolved the army of responsibility for the debacle. Instead, blame has been placed on the shoulders of Gen Musharraf, Shaukat Aziz and members of the cabinet at the time. But before the state files murder charges — as recommended by the one-judge commission — we must ask whether these recommendations are in consonance with some aspects of the affair that need greater critical appraisal. In other words, the sensitive nature of such an investigation should have entailed far broader terms of reference for the commission than merely affixing blame and focusing on compensation issues.

There are three crucial aspects of the Lal Masjid operation that can be considered independently of the report: a) the military operation that resulted in clearing the mosque of militants and the death of many civilians was an institutional decision, not solely that of Gen Musharraf, who was then army chief; b) the situation in the capital had been allowed to come to such a pass that a military operation became necessary; c) the operation was badly mishandled, resulting in the death of all those who were inside the complex, not just the militants. True, there was justification for the operation. The Lal Masjid militants had challenged the writ of the state in the heart of Islamabad. Aside from the seminary students’ moral policing in the capital, Sharia ‘courts’ were set up inside the mosque and there were a number of fire-fights with the police, paramilitary and army even before the military launched its operation. Heavy weaponry was stashed inside the place of worship — and later used by militants during the siege.

While the details of the siege itself were covered extensively by the media, very little is known about the identity of the armed militants who were in control of the mosque complex and their agenda. Here is where a bigger probe is needed; and also to answer what went on inside the complex during the operation and what prompted the military to act in a way that there was no survivor to give an alternative version of events. It can only be hoped that a wider probe will also summon army officials. Fact and fiction must be separated before blame is affixed on those responsible for carrying out a flawed operation and those whose terrorising tactics were getting out of hand.