Once the dust has settled on the violent Lal Masjid episode, many will argue that Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf could have handled things differently. Already a 37-party political alliance, comprising among others, Nawaz Sharif's PML-N and Imran Khan's Tehreek e-Insaf, has been set up which has condemned Operation Silence in which the Pakistani army has taken on fundamentalists holed up in the mosque. More than 50 militants and at least 10 soldiers have been killed so far. The General may have given fundamentalist forces a long rope in the past, but this time around his hand has been forced. For quite a while now, extremists from the Lal Masjid have been leading moral crusades that included targeting video shops to imposing Sharia courts. The operation could work to the benefit of Musharraf and liberal forces in the country if the collateral damage is contained. The fundamentalists have not shown themselves in a positive light beginning with senior cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz trying to flee the besieged mosque in a burqa. The rebels have also been using women and children as shields in the face of army fire.
There is unlikely to be any major public outpouring of sympathy for those who have dug themselves into the premises of the Lal Masjid for, by all standards, they are considered the lunatic fringe even among the fundamentalists. The army action suggests that at last Pakistan means business in tackling terrorism. The General also had to act under Beijing's pressure after a few Chinese were taken hostage. The West, especially Washington, has been breathing down the General's neck. Until now he has been saying that he is willing but unable to step up the drive against the militants. He seems to have shed that pretence now.
If the army keeps up the pressure, it could turn the tide against fundamentalism. It is clear that the same militant groups that are creating unrest in Pakistan are the ones carrying out attacks on Indian soil. This is the ideal time for both nations to step up cooperation on the anti-terror mechanism. There is much more at stake for Pakistan in such a move. Pakistan is at a crossroads today. If it turns the right way, it could shake off its 'failed State' tag.