It has been more than a week since the massive operation by the army’s elite (anti-terrorist) special services group eliminated what had come to be known as the Lal Masjid Brigade, but sounds from the bloody finale have continued to reverberate across the country in more ways than one.
Certainly the situation is more alarming than what many had earlier thought, particularly if seen in the light of the radical views of the non-combatant survivors of the religious complex. Coupled with that has been the angry reaction in a large section of the population, mainly due to the lack of transparency about the civilian casualties.
And a much stronger reaction by the Islamic militants has come in the form of suicide attacks in North West Pakistan. And now Islamabad. All this makes the situation look even more precarious.
The big question is: Is the country really poised on a powder-keg of Talibanisation, or the fissures seen in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid crackdown are just a passing phase? If the former is true, then does it imply the political and security establishment has once again been caught unaware of how deep-rooted the new wave of Islamism is?
But then Lal Masjid was never an issue into itself. The illegal actions of the mosque brigade and the open defiance by the armed militants in the heart of Islamabad had perhaps made the crackdown witnessed last week almost inevitable.
However, a deeper look into the malaise suggests that Lal Masjid was just a symptom of what is increasingly looking like creeping Talibanisation in the country. If not handled with determination and clarity of purpose, that may well continue its march from the tribal areas towards the settled regions beyond the North West Frontier soon and start to swallow the traditional political forces, including the mainstream Islamic groups that still believe in a democratic order.
So, little wonder that among those seriously worried about this disturbing trend is also the leader of the biggest pro-democracy Islamic group in the country, Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
Based on the assessment of several political and security analysts, it can be said that if there is at all a strategy to deal with the rising tide of religious extremism, it is not working. In fact, many believe the government’s handling of various issues from Waziristan to Bajaur, and madressah reforms to the Lal Masjid affair, is indicative of the fact that such issues are still being handled on a piecemeal basis, with no sign of an effective, coherent strategy.
Certainly the Lal Masjid affair was treated as an isolated phenomenon where the mission was to deal with a couple of hard-line clerics who, along with a bunch of militants, had turned against their one-time benefactors.
Throughout the crisis the authorities kept giving the impression that most of those inside the Mosque-Madressah complex were hostage to a situation, and if given a chance, would opt to come out and leave the militants alone to fight with the security forces.
All this is fast proving to be wrong. Many did come out voluntarily on the first day of the security siege to avoid getting killed, which was indeed a success of the authorities.
But scores of men and women who stayed back with a few dozen armed militants can best be described as highly committed religious extremists.
Still, they were unarmed civilians, and preferred to stay back, and became victim of a brutal situation. Those who survived, particularly the women, show they have nothing but praise for the people who died inside the mosque.
Are these revelations shocking for those managing the affairs of the state?
Moving away from Lal Masjid, and deep into North West Pakistan, the story is of one set-back after another in what may otherwise be a sincere effort to curb militancy and restore order. Every agreement with the tribal militants, starting with the one signed with Nek Mohammed with much fanfare in Wana a few years ago, has failed to deliver anything to the government while allowing the militants to consolidate their position. The reality of both South and North Waziristan today is that the security forces are spending more time in protecting themselves from possible suicide bombers, than in trying to establish the writ of the government. On the other hand, militants are already regarding places like parts of Bannu and Tank as their territory, and have started to lay a claim on D.I. Khan. Malakand is a new development, which shows that the defunct Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM) is back with new arms and vigour. From parts of Swat to the Bajaur tribal agency, it is making its military presence felt.
It’s won’t be fair to say that the authorities are not aware of these developments. The massive deployment of troops in the Malakand region suggests they are determined to cull the armed Islamic movement in and around Swat. They may even succeed for the time being. But the past experience shows that these may at best be temporary solutions.
So, where does the problem lie?
The problem is multi-faceted. It ranges from public perception to faults in both tactics and strategy and, above all, in the inability of President Musharraf to find the right political allies to support such moves.
No matter what the President says about the anti-terrorism policy being home-grown, most people in the country believe whatever action he is taking is under American pressure. And this perception remains despite the repeated mention of his hitherto unexplained philosophy of “enlightened moderation”.
This perception is partly because of the United States’ never ending demand to “do more”. But it is also because of the security establishment’s own track record of the past, when for many years it regarded the jihadi movements as essential part of the country’s regional policy. The sudden turnaround in the post-9/11 world, and without providing any convincing justification, gave currency to the perception, both among the Islamists and moderates, that all this was being done to ensure continued American support for his rule. The result was that there were no takers for the new policy. Since President Musharraf was unable to provide a convincing rationale for a change in the country’s policy, the Islamic groups remained successful in creating the impression that every action of the government was being dictated to by the Americans. Perhaps more troubling was the response of the anti-Islamists groups as they continued to doubt the government’s sincerity as their claim was that it was a stop-gap arrangement and the military’s real allies were still the mullahs.
Many such people believe the reason such crises are only being dealt with in isolation is because a section of the security establishment is opposed to the policy of completely severing links with the Islamists. They provide a host of examples, the latest being the middle-man’s role played by leader of a banned militant outfit, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, during the government’s negotiations with the Lal Masjid cleric, Abdul Rasheed Ghazi. The manner in which Maulana Khalil became readily available has raised many an eye brow among the followers of the Islamic movements in Pakistan. And no one knows how (and why) many more militant leaders are still in close contact with the authorities.
President Pervez Musharraf often rebuts his critics by saying that instead of just discussing the problems they should also provide solutions. He certainly has a point. And indeed there are no easy solutions to what clearly looks like the biggest challenge faced by the country since its creation sixty years ago.
But then there are a few things the President can do for starters, his critics point out. He can’t do much about the perception of him being pro-American, but he can at least convince the other side that the days of the Islamists being the natural allies of the security establishment are gone. In order to do that, he would need to go public with an honest assessment of the establishment’s past policy of promoting militancy, and will have to admit what was happening now was a direct result of past mistakes. What he needs to consider is that the trouble that the Americans find themselves in today is largely because of their insistence on defending their past role of supporting and nurturing Islamic militancy to fight the Soviets. President Musharraf needs to take a bold step, even if it means a new tirade from the Islamists of denouncing the so-called jihadi movements of the recent past.
It may look difficult, but when he can find the courage to admit mistakes committed in the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), he can surely also distance his security establishment from its follies of the past.
The new situation can then mark the beginning of an era of political re-alignment with the forces of moderation rallying on one side to take on the rising tide of extremism.
Equally, if not more important is the introduction of a system of a true social justice system. Unless the state is able to provide free education and health to the poor, with assurance of a decent living, the well-funded Islamic madressah will remain a major attraction for those who cannot afford to provide their children with food and education. And one doesn’t have to be a genius to understand that some of these madressahs can then turn into centres for preaching hatred or violence, or become nurseries for armed militancy, and recruitment centres for suicide bombers.
What President Musharraf needs to know is that he cannot go on relying on his intelligence establishment to convince himself that he is in control of the situation. In the absence of any political support (and the backing of the right-wing of PML-Q doesn’t mean much) he may never be able to take on the Islamists whose numbers are growing and who have, no matter how misplaced, an ideology to take on the country’s political and security establishment, and perhaps also the promised democratic order.