AS bouquets and brickbats are being flung at the government following the Lal Masjid operation, the tough questions are sure to follow. Even as the corpses of the victims and the villains are being buried, most Pakistanis are already asking how events were allowed to come to such a bloody pass.

One of the hallmarks of military governments is that they all pretend to be very keen on accountability. So who will be the scapegoat for allowing the six-month old stand-off at the mosque complex to drag on? Clearly, the Ghazi brothers used this time to stock up on arms and ammunition, apart from sneaking in dozens of trained militants.

And while I certainly support the government in its bid to restore the writ of the state, I am appalled at the ham-handed way in which it was done. As soon as the burqa-clad brigade of the Jamia Hafsa illegally occupied the adjoining children’s library last January, it became clear that an armed rebellion in the heart of the capital had been declared.

By engaging the perpetrators in endless negotiations, the government gave them the impression of weakness. This perception encouraged the clerics and their impressionable followers to indulge in further crimes like raiding a home and kidnapping its residents; attacking shops and burning DVDs and music CDs; grabbing policemen from the streets and keeping them prisoner; and finally, kidnapping Chinese nationals.

At each provocation, the government failed to act, reinforcing the image of impotence. Many conspiracy theories are swirling around to explain why Musharraf remained so curiously inactive. According to the most popular one, he was trying to deflect public attention from the judicial crisis.

I, for one, don’t buy this interpretation of events because it flies in the face of what we know about the general. A risk-taker, he certainly does not want people — and especially those in Washington — to think of him as weak, and not in control.

Already, his image has suffered in the West as a result of a growing perception that he is not doing as much as he could in the ‘war on terror’. This negative view was reinforced by the perception that his authority and power have been eroded by the on-going judicial crisis, culminating in the Karachi killings of May 12. He would certainly not wish to confirm this impression by allowing the Ghazi brothers to defy him barely a mile from the presidency.

To me, it seems clear that he has been misled and ill-advised by members of his government, as well as by intelligence agencies. Firstly, Shujaat Hussain and Ijazul Haq went time and again to the Ghazi brothers, begging them to climb down.

According to one popular TV anchor, the religious affairs minister even bent down to touch Maulana Abdul Aziz’s feet in a gesture of deference. He later shed crocodile tears on TV after the operation was over. Basking in the media spotlight, the clerics increased their demands to include the transformation of the country’s entire legal and social system.Despite their intransigence, the government went on trying to placate them. Every couple of days, we would be told that the two sides were close to an agreement. It seemed as though two equal sovereign powers were negotiating a complex treaty.

Meanwhile, militants and arms continued pouring in to the mosque complex under the very nose of Islamabad’s police and intelligence services. Normally, cars are stopped at random on the capital’s streets and inspected for bootlegged bottles and bombs. But it seems the vehicles entering the Lal Masjid were exempt from this checking.

Weeks ago, I asked in this space why the government simply did not cut off water, electricity and gas to the complex. This obvious question has still not been answered. Instead of going in with guns blazing as late as July 4, or replying to the firing from the mosque complex, utilities could still have been cut off. The result might have been a bit slower, but it would have been far less bloody.

Another question to which I would like a sensible reply is why, once seminary students had embarked on their lawless path six months ago, parents did not immediately flock to Islamabad to take their kids home. After all, the actions of the students were not exactly a secret. What kind of people would leave their children in the custody of militant clerics when it was obvious that sooner or later, the state would act?

There have been so many failures on so many levels that I don’t have enough space to go into them here. But one thing is clear: the entire sorry episode is not a bolt from the blue that took everybody by surprise. Ever since Zia gave them legitimacy, arms and money over two decades ago, religious extremists have been steadily encroaching on the state’s functions and responsibilities.

They have set up parallel educational and legal systems in parts of the country; at gunpoint, they are enforcing a social code of conduct in large swathes of the tribal areas and the NWFP; and relentlessly, they have been pushing their mediaeval agenda.

Successive governments have caved in to this pressure, accepting these acts of lawlessness as ground realities. Each time the mullahs have raised their demands, those in power have backed off rather than confronted them. Against this backdrop of militancy and weakness, it is easy to see why the Ghazi brothers thought they could get away with their rebellion in the heart of Islamabad.

Another question that arises from this fiasco is how many other surprises await us in the thousands of madressahs that operate around the country. While thanks to Zia, few of them match the scale of the Lal Masjid complex, there is little doubt that many of them are focal points of religious extremism, and may conceal arms caches and militants. The fact that they are effectively out of bounds to official inspectors means that the writ of the state does not extend to them, just as it did not to the Lal Masjid.

Perhaps it is time for Musharraf to keep his promise of 2002 to regulate these madressahs that have mushroomed in the past 20 years. Widely acclaimed when he made this pledge, he has since decided that discretion is the better part of valour.

More probably, he has been again misled by the likes of Shujaat Hussain and Ijazul Haq. It is clear where their sympathies lie, and in an effort to curry favour with the extremists, they have ignored their loyalty to the state and the government they serve.

Perhaps the only funny image from the whole sorry mess is the one of Maulana Abdul Aziz trying to escape in a burqa.

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