Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has a real opportunity to crack down hard on Islamist terrorists operating in his country following Tuesday's pre-dawn operation against militants holed up in Islamabad's Lal Masjid. The General, whose record in the battle against militancy is chequered, ordered his troops to take over the Masjid after efforts to secure a negotiated settlement with the clerics failed.
“Musharraf took this step as a last resort. A representative team of negotiators, which included former prime minister Shujaat Hussain, considered sympathetic to Islamic organisations, was talking to the clerics till 4 a.m.,” Zafar Abbas, resident editor of Dawn in Islamabad, said.
“These negotiations have given Musharraf an advantage. No one can accuse him of wanting bloodshed,” Abbas said. According to him, the “reaction” from the Masjid operation would be tricky for the President to handle, but the “odds were in Musharraf's favour”.
Wisely, the Government of India has chosen to remain studiously quiet and not make any official comment whatsoever on this
operation. In the background, one official described the Lal Masjid storming as a "high stakes game" for the General.
Others said that having decided to raid the mosque complex, Musharraf would have taken into account its likely repercussions and felt he could cope with the largely domestic fallout.
On June 30, the General himself had warned that Jaish-e-Muhammad suicide bombers were inside the Lal Masjid. "They are indoctrinated people. There are also people associated with the Jaish-e-Mohammad. They have explosives," he had said.
Given that India has repeatedly stressed that the infrastructure of terrorism in Pakistan — especially anti-India groups like Jaish — needs to be dismantled, the President's confirmation can only add strength to New Delhi's argument.
The Jaish, led by Masood Azhar, freed by New Delhi in December 1999 in lieu of passengers on board the Indian Airlines aircraft hijacked to Kandahar, is also responsible for twin assassination attempts on Musharraf in December 2003.
Abbas, however, believes that some elements within the Pakistani establishment feel there would have been nothing wrong in letting the Lal Masjid bosses continue their vigilantism.
Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, felt the key issue in the Masjid crisis was the link between the clerics and Pakistan's intelligence agencies. “We need to ask the vital question ‘what are these agencies doing?’”
Interestingly, the Daily Times has reported that a former Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate official Khalid Khawaja was discovered aiding and abetting the Masjid rebels. “Are some influential ex-ISI officers also on the other side?” the paper said in an editorial. The ISI headquarters are located close to the Lal Masjid.
Former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan G Parthasarathy said Musharraf did not have an option but to raid the mosque. “With the Americans on his back in Waziristan, and the Chinese getting upset, he had to act.” The abduction of Chinese women by the Lal Masjid jehadis had obviously raised the stake in the Masjid game.
“Running with the hare (initially encouraging radicals at the mosque, allowing outfits like Jaish to function and aiding Talibanisation) and hunting with the hounds (going after the Al-Qaeda) was bound to land him in trouble,” the former diplomat added.
Uday Bhaskar, formerly with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, said he could make two inferences from the attack — one, that the Pakistan military had the capability to deal firmly with religious extremism, if it wanted to; second, China was more than slightly instrumental in nudging Musharraf to act.
According to Siddiqa, the military operation will strengthen Musharraf politically. Speaking by telephone from London, she said it would rally liberal sections of Pakistan around Musharraf and widen the divide between mainline and right-wing religious parties - something that would go in the General's favour.