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October - November 2007

Political News

Bloodbath at Lal Masjid in Islamabad

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee

In an extraordinary turn of events several thousand commandoes of the Pakistan Army on July 10, 2007 stormed the sprawling 60 year old Lal Masjid or the Red Mosque and its adjacent Madrassa – the Quranic Seminary – known as the Jamia Hafsa located in the heart of the nation’s capital Islamabad and flushed out thousands of heavily armed Islamist hardliners holed up in the Mosque. It stunned the world because few expected that such a thing could happen in a country whose Army has since the last two decades institutionally incubated the Taliban, the Al Qaeda and a long list of other inter-connected terror organisations like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Hizbul Mujahideen, Al Badr, Harkat-ul-Ansar and so on fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The scope of the military assault could be judged by the requisition that Pakistan Army had made for body bags to carry the dead at the end of the operations. It was reported that the body bags were over 400 in number. According to opposition sources the number of deaths could be in their hundreds. Embarrassed Army authorities estimated that about 150 militants died in the raid, which included their leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi. Earlier, the security forces had arrested his elder brother Abdul Aziz Ghazi, the Chief Imam of the Mosque, when he tried to escape under the cover of a Burqa. At least 29 Pakistani soldiers died in action.

The Lal Masjid hardliners had challenged the authority of President General Pervez Musharraf and wanted to establish an ultra puritanical form of Islamic Sharia Law in Pakistan, which he did not want.

In a grave provocation the militants kidnapped and murdered several Chinese nationals, which infuriated Beijing. The Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a curious twist to the tale, intervened personally and urged Musharraf to rescue the Chinese nationals and punish the criminals.

Equally importantly, US President George W Bush came out in support of Musharraf’s decision to act against the hardliners.

Security analysts in Washington and elsewhere believed that the crisis into which Pakistan was plunged might have been engineered by the General himself to deflect attention from the combined effect of the spiralling countrywide protests against the illegally sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, ( he was later reinstated on a Supreme Court decision to Musharraf’s great embarrassment ), the intensifying insurgency in Balochistan, the return of violence in both North and South Waziristan, the flak Islamabad was getting from the US for allowing the Taliban and the al Qaeda to regroup in Pakistan leading to increased death toll of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, the rising pro-democracy challenge of the newly forged coalition of political parties led by former Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif and so on. Imposition of Martial Law or a State of Emergency or in the alternative ordering a postponement of the Presidential elections that got mired in controversy due to be held at the end of the year 2007 could be what Musharraf wanted dearly to see happen. But the international community was watching Musharraf closely and his room for manoeuvre was therefore precious little.

Condoleeza Rice, the US Secretary of State Thursday 9 August 2007 at 0200 hours phoned Musharraf and sternly warned against declaring a State of Emergency in Pakistan and demanded that both former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif be allowed to return to the country and run for elections due at year end 2007. This meant that America wanted a duly elected civilian Prime Minister to take office in Pakistan in the coming elections. Before midday on 9 August the announcement came from Islamabad that the President had withheld the declaration of the State of Emergency in Pakistan.

US newspapers like the influential Washington Post and prestigious think-tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace took a strongly critical view of Musharraf whose “misrule” they said was responsible for the rise in Islamic extremism, contrary to the Bush Administration’s line that the General was a bulwark against fundamentalism. In a rebuke to President George W Bush, the Carnegie Endowment said that Pakistan’s military was complicit in the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, including the resurgence of the Taliban, terrorism in Kashmir and the growth of Jihadi extremism and capabilities.

In the sub-continental context, Musharraf’s Lal Masjid adventure in 2007 had echoes of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s military assault against the Sikh militants holed up in the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, which cost her, her own life. The report of an assassination bid using a surface to air missile from a rooftop near Rawalpindi on the life of the General during the course of the Lal Masjid raid did not bode well for his personal safety.

In an ominous development Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s Number 2 leader, lost no time in issuing a stern warning to Mushrraf that his action against the Lal Masjid would not go unpunished. There were reports that Zawahiri did not properly consult Osama bin Laden before he came out with this threat, which offended him. Zawahiri’s warning had however the effect of transforming the alliance of the Military and the Mosque overnight into a deadly confrontation between the newfound adversaries - Al Qaeda and Pakistan Army. The military may not find it easy to keep Pakistan’s Army-created Talibanised society under wraps for too long. Zawahiri also called on Pakistanis to overthrow General Musharraf’s government. Both the State of Pakistan and its head the Military Dictator between them would now need the combined support of their friends and allies - both domestic and international - to come to their rescue and protect them from a looming disaster.

Benazir Bhutto, in an attempt to improve her secular credentials and her chances of becoming PM for a third time although the Constitution does not allow it, supported Musharraf’s 10 July 2007 military action against the Islamic militants in Lal Masjid. This made her an ideal civilian candidate for partnership with the Government. Eleven days later, by 21 July the logic of a political deal with Musharraf significantly weakened following the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry by the Supreme Court. An understanding with the General in the dramatically changed circumstance would have been unpopular and damaging to Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party. Later events proved otherwise. Musharraf, pathetically cornered needed Bhutto to bail him out, more than Bhutto needed Musharraf to put her in power. Washington’s support for Bhutto was to prove critical in the shaping of this unlikely partnership. Such an arrangement had the potential for the US of avoiding direct military intervention.

The reinstatement of the Chief Justice left Musharraf more isolated than at any time since he seized power in 1999. If the General attempted to perpetuate his Presidency retaining his uniform without seeking a popular mandate, the Supreme Court could over-rule the move and force Musharraf to hand over power to a caretaker government.

What are the chances of an US-led military intervention succeeding should that option become unavoidable? From the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, any thought of Western intervention in an Islamic State like Pakistan must be passé. What the US would do and when, are matters of political speculation but the chances of achieving any positive results are slim. Western military intervention, in an extreme case scenario, would instantly ignite ferocious insurgency. In the face of American firepower, Al Qaeda’s fighting forces would disperse widely within civilian populations and effectively go invisible behind human shields exposing an US led attack killing women and children open to charges of human rights violations. Al Qaeda is well experienced in using the doctrine of human rights violations as a tool of psychological warfare to demoralise the enemy troops. A Washington-led expeditionary force would be smaller than those engaged in Kabul and Baghdad and would therefore be overstretched, fighting on three fronts all at the same time. The more pragmatic option would be to devise methods as to how to stem the rot, without direct military intervention.

US President George W Bush in his weekly radio broadcast on 21 July left no one in any doubt about his anxieties that the peace deal reached by Musharraf with the Taliban on 5 September 2006 allowed the Al Qaeda to rebuild bases in Pakistan boosting its ability to attack America. As the outbreak of an open war between Al Qaeda-led Taliban fighters and the Pakistan Army loomed on the horizon, Bush gave no sign of ditching Musharraf but in fact continued to see him as essential to hopes of restoring stability to the country. In reposing disproportionate faith on Musharraf, Bush appeared over-optimistic in his assumptions on the Pakistani military dictator’s capacity to deliver. He has forgotten nothing and learnt nothing, as the saying goes. Given the General’s credibility having nose-dived to the lowest point since he took over power, the chances of his survival beyond 2007 seemed pretty slim, other things remaining unchanged.

The world community is very worried indeed about what thoughts US President George W Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao are giving to what will happen to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if Musharraf is thrown out of power or assassinated. Will China and the US allow the nuclear-armed failed state to go under and be taken over by the Al Qaeda and the Taliban ? Strategic neglect at this stage would almost certainly ensure Pakistan’s noisy collapse and martyrdom with unimaginable consequences. Nobody knows either what good purpose strategic engagement would produce. As the concerned powers juggle with options, an alternative however impractical it may sound, would be for China or the US or both jointly to take control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and shift the facilities overseas so that in the event of an Al Qaeda take over, the Pakistani WMDs are prevented from falling into the hands of the extremists. Since the Pakistani a-bombs and its missiles are all targeted on India, New Delhi has a heavy stake in being involved with what happens to them. Unlike Iran, Pakistan is a client state both of China and the US and therefore its co-operation - however reluctant - on this issue in the backdrop of the recent ominous developments should not be too difficult to secure. For the sake of international security it is an option that should not be clapped out of court without a serious thought.

Pakistan’s internal dynamics too have no less a complex dimension of their own. What the ethnic minorities in Pakistan would do to sort out their future in the event Pakistan frayed at the edges, should be left to them to map out. Historically, Islamic societies having diverse ethnic compositions are intrinsically unstable and divisive societies, Pakistan being no exception. Over-cautious India may like to keep its distance from the unfolding events in Pakistan but as a functioning democracy next door, it is unlikely that it will be able to run away from coming to grips with the grim realities developing in the neighbouring country and the responsibilities that go with them. There are reservoirs of democratic aspirations among ethnic minorities in Pakistan and it would not be unnatural for them to look to democratic India for inspiration and guidance.

On the ground, in a quick-fire response to the Lal Masjid massacre, the Tribal Council in North Waziristan - home to Al Qaeda and the Taliban hardliners - took the decision to unilaterally end the controversial peace agreement signed on 5 September 2006 with Pakistan Army, which had seen the withdrawal of Government troops from both South and North Waziristans in return for assurances from the tribal leaders to guard the frontiers with Afghanistan. It is not just a routine matter that the truce produced a good deal of tactical aggravation for the US-led coalition forces in their campaign in Afghanistan.

Coinciding with the end of September Five peace agreement, was a wave of violent attacks by the pro-Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda militants spread across North Waziristan and NWFP leaving in just two days 14 and 15 July 2007 at least 56 people dead including 25 soldiers in suicide attacks, bomb blasts and other terror incidents. On 16 July another 16 people died in a suicide bomb attack on a Pakistan Peoples Party rally in Islamabad. On 17 July a batch of 17 Pakistani soldiers died in gun attacks fired on Army convoys by the tribals from mountain hideouts in North Waziristan in classic guerrilla style warfare. By Sunday 22 July 2007, at the hands of the Taliban fighters, 250 people were dead more than half of them were Pakistan army troops. As violence spread, Pakistan Army braced itself for a widening confrontation in a spiralling volatile situation. It was not entirely a new development but post-Lal Masjid the outbreak of violence in this virulent form seemed like the beginnings of a serious destabilisation campaign of the Islamic Republic inspired and driven by the Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Coming round a full circle, the creators of the Frankenstein of Terror became its victim.

In addition to Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the hardliners discovered a useful new poster boy of extremism in Pakistan in the martyred Islamist leader of the Lal Masjid - Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

The Al Qaeda has also identified Pakistan as the new “ Dar-ul-Harb ”, the Quranic idea of an object of desire, where the Islamic Sharia Law is waiting to be imposed in its full puritanical format at the point of the sword. Al Qaeda is not unaware that its name has found its way into the consciousness of mankind, which makes it impatient to establish a sovereign foot-hold in some strategic corner of the Islamic world before its hard-earned political capital dissipates. What better place can it get than the territories of North and South Waziristan and NWFP in Pakistan? Mazhar e Sharief and Helmand Province in Afghanistan would be worth having too, within Al Qaeda’s sovereign domain.

When Musharraf agreed to join America in its War on Terror after 9/11, it meant that Pakistan was expected to ditch its old fraternal relationship with the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. In reality, Musharraf did not do that. He maintained a secret duplicitous relationship with both the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, while protesting that such allegations were without foundation. This relationship ended on 10 July 2007 with the raid on the Lal Masjid in Islamabad. As the situation turned volatile, the damage was already done to the US-Pakistan relationship.

As the Sunni extremists took control of the hearts and minds of large chunks of the traditional Islamic societies, in the aftermath of American invasions of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Sunni-dominated Iraq, the Wahabi/Salafist Al Qaeda, supported by its recruiting sergeant the Deobandi Taliban, together redefined Sunni Islam’s political agenda and re-arranged its goal posts. Their secret agenda shifted gear from the old Islamic traditions of moderation and tolerance to a call for doctrinal purity and non-inclusive fundamentalism. Their unique contribution is the articulation of the next chapter of the Islamist ideology. It is a newly conceptualised ultra hard-line interpretation of a politico-religious form of violent extremism driven by territorial and nuclear ambition. Add resolute anti-Americanism to it. This is what defines contemporary Sunni Islamism. Moderation has no place in this new scheme of things.

Al Qaeda has now declared its war against Pakistan. Its strategy is founded on at least three tactical military advantages.

Pakistan’s radicalised lumpen masses and also its largely Talibanised armed forces and the Intelligence Services are seen by the Al Qaeda as its soft under-belly that is waiting to be exploited.

Al Qaeda is also well aware of the weaknesses of the under-manned and the under-equipped Coalition Forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. With its well tested hit and run tactics of orchestrated terror attacks and mass murders, backed by an army of suicide bombers always ready to go into action, Al Qaeda is not overly nervous of the threats of US-led aerial attacks from across the western borders on its bases in the Afghan-Pakistan borders.

Add to these factors is the deep sense of insecurity and uncertainty prevailing in the country. The morale is low both in the civilian population as well as the armed forces.

The time is therefore ripe for Al Qaeda to hit Pakistan hard and secure its most prized asset: Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. How to prevent that from happening, is a question that must be engaging the minds of Washington’s power brokers.

What must have encouraged the Al Qaeda’s top leadership was an admission on 18 July 2007 by Ms Frances Fragos Townsend who heads the Homeland Security Council at the White House that the US strategy for fighting Osama bin Laden’s leadership in Pakistan had failed. She added that the Al Qaeda had significantly strengthened its position over the past two years in Pakistan and blamed General Pervez Musharraf’s perceived ineptitude for this unfortunate development. Having said that, what must really worry the Al Qaeda leadership is the US counter-terrorism chief’s later statement “ Washington takes this enhanced security threat very seriously and will deal with it.” Making an important policy announcement she said in a somewhat diplomatic language that if Musharraf was unable or incapable of dealing with the threat on his own, he would have to get ready to “ build and borrow the capability ”, which meant seeking help from the US. Taking a cue from the tone of Ms Townsend’s 18 July 2007 statement, the prospect of US aerial bombardment of al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in the Afghan-Pakistan border regions of S and N Waziristan and the NWFP cannot be ruled out.

One would like to think that Washington is not pinning its hopes too much on winning its war on terror in Pakistan by putting its technological superiority to overwhelming use. The US should better not forget that it would not have much of a chance in winning in the numbers game against its adversary. The combined strength of grass root support and the regenerative power of Islamist terror are beyond America’s power to confront. One hopes that Washington is conscious of the fact that incremental ground intervention in the context of today’s tense and over-charged political situation may only help to hasten the destabilisation of Pakistan along its bitterly polarised ethnic fault-lines. It is unlikely that Al Qaeda will stand in the way of a fragmentation of Pakistan, if such a denouement comes to pass.

Given Osama bin Laden’s strategic craving for securing control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal or at least a part of it, it is needless to over-emphasise the imperative of a holistic strategic response to that threat. One should not rule out a messy and a chaotic end to the drama. But such is the destiny of bellicose societies ruled by self-centred military dictators who have lost their strategic vision.

I think I should have titled this article differently namely: “ Blood Bath in Lal Masjid in Islamabad: Pakistan Plunges the World in the Mother of All Crises.”

As Pakistan’s next-door neighbours, daunting challenging days lie ahead for both India and Afghanistan. They cannot blame that they have not been warned.

The writer is the author of “India’s Security Dilemmas- Pakistan and Bangladesh” published by Anthem Press in New Delhi in September 2006.

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