by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 17th July 2007
In Pakistan, where cynicism suffuses political discussion, most people are certain that President Pervez Musharraf engineered the Lal Masjid showdown only to deflect attention from the growing political challenge from suspended Chief Justice Iftekhar Chaudhary’s unlikely revolt. Bazaar gossip aside, only the General himself knows what drove him to flush out that den of extremism. But whatever his motivations, the Lal Masjid attack is a tipping point, the start of a bloody confrontation between the Pakistani establishment and the extremists that they have long nurtured and now turned their backs on.
The militant reaction has swept in like a summer storm. The North West Frontier Province (NWFP) erupted immediately after the Lal Masjid was stormed. On Sunday, the Taliban scrapped the shameful deal that Islamabad had inked last September, granting the Taliban sway over Waziristan provided foreign militants were kept in check. (At the time, Islamabad had claimed that the deal had been struck with “tribal elders” to empower them against the Taliban and Al Qaeda). Over the weekend, a spate of suicide attacks in the NWFP has directly targeted Pakistani security forces.
Islamabad has long differentiated between “our militants” and others. That pretence is becoming impossible to sustain. The Lal Masjid was always controlled by “our mullah”, its head cleric carefully screened by the ISI before being appointed. An unknown number of Jaish-e-Mohammad fighters inside, who defended the Lal Masjid to the end, were “our militants”, long nurtured as a pressure point against India. The Taliban suicide bombers who have blown up nearly a hundred people in the NWFP on Saturday and Sunday were “our militants”, created and cultivated as a lever against Afghanistan.
Today, Musharraf cannot choose which militants he wants to fight. The ideological, operational, financial and logistical linkages that bind together global jehad are too interlinked for differentiations to be made.
Superficially, Musharraf seems caught in a dilemma, with little choice but bloody confrontation. In fact, his chosen road is a convenient one. For the first time ever, all the stars that guide decision making in Pakistan are in propitious alignment. Musharraf himself, under dire personal threat, has believed for some time now that jehadi extremism must be stamped out. Now the only Electoral College that matters in Pakistan also backs that view; after having to storm the Lal Masjid, Pakistan’s corps commanders are rattled by the growth of a Frankenstein’s monster that is staring down the army. All weather friend, China, is nudging Islamabad towards cracking down on terror. And finally, the United States, with its own interests in Afghanistan, has welcomed the Pakistani army’s move back into the NWFP and urged it to act more forcefully. Stephen Hadley, the US National Security Advisor, has promised Pakistan all assistance. That translates into greater military and intelligence cooperation along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The monthly stipend of US $100 million that the US gives Pakistan for operations in the NWFP will be continued, perhaps even upped.
Musharraf, far wiser than when he believed that domestic politics was irrelevant, has arranged adequate political cover for the battles to come. The religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), for all its lack of political scruple, can hardly be expected to support Musharraf in cracking down on Islamist militancy. So the General has brought on board the ever-opportunistic Benazir Bhutto who has effectively declared that she backs General Musharraf’s battle against extremism and looks forward to being elected Prime Minister soon. That’s something that the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment should be able to organise for her.
A notable aspect of this drama is the deafening silence from New Delhi. Washington, never a shrine to delicacy or circumspection, has made the mistake of publicly endorsing President Musharraf’s deployment of additional troops in the NWFP, laying him open to the inevitable charge of acting at the behest of the “alliance of Crusaders and Jews”. This is a constant refrain from the extremist, as well as the liberal chorus in Pakistan. India is doing well to avoid gratuitous advice or support.
The temptation to crow is high in New Delhi: the government has long warned Pakistan against the dangers of sponsoring terrorism, that lying down with dogs risks waking up with flees. But even the most indirect Indian blessing for a Musharraf crackdown on terror would be the kiss of death for this. Pakistan is at last tackling terror head-on and New Delhi must not retard that effort by making it appear linked with India.
Sceptics will correctly point out that this is not the first time that General Musharraf has stepped up to the plate, only to turn away when the decisions became hard. Musharraf’s list of discarded promises is long: non-interference in Afghanistan (September 2001), outlawing of Pakistani terrorist groups like the Lashkar, the Jaish, the SSP and the Lashkar e Jhangvi (January 2002), the ending of infiltration (May 2002) and madrasa reform (2002). But each of those pledges was opposed by important sections of opinion in Pakistan, sometimes even by Pakistani public opinion. This time the only significant opposition comes from radical fundamentalists. Though vocal, and widespread, their numbers are small.
Pakistan’s battle lines are drawn; it must now shape the tools. Islamabad is rewriting the “anti-Talibanisation” blueprint, which its National Security Council formalised last month. After Lal Masjid the NSC believes that the radical threat comes from towns and villages alike, cutting across conventional boundaries, both geographical and demographic.