The General’s Endless Juggling Act

Gulf News, July 18, 2007

The bloody end to the siege of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid speaks volumes about General Pervez Musharraf’s style of governance and decision-making. Musharraf alternates between promising much, delivering little, and finally, trying to make up for lost time with highly visible displays of force. His sporadic actions are timed to win support of the United States and other Western countries but, over the years, he has managed to alienate virtually every important domestic constituency in Pakistan.

The shootout at Lal Masjid is emblematic of Musharraf’s deadly inconsistencies.

Since January, the clerics of Lal Masjid used the government-run mosque in the heart of the capital, not far from the headquarters of Pakistan’s dreaded Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as the centre for their Taliban-like movement to promote their brand of virtue.

They occupied a government library, sponsored raids on alleged brothels, ran vigilante squads that forcibly shut down video shops, and dispensed instant justice through unofficial Sharia courts. Their exhortations to jihad became the focus of the world’s attention.

Pakistan’s ubiquitous intelligence services, capable of spying even inside the home of the nation’s Chief Justice, could easily have determined the capabilities of Maulana Abdul Aziz and his brother Abdul Rashid Gazi, who died in the final showdown. They didn’t. Instead, for almost seven months, Musharraf gave them time to amass weapons and ammunition.

Uncharacteristic haste

Given the government’s track record of inaction, Pakistanis expected a negotiated settlement which would give the mosque’s leaders safe passage for evacuating the premises. However, the government imposed a curfew in surrounding areas and besieged the mosque.

After luring Maulana Aziz out of the mosque and arresting him, the government succeeded in persuading a majority of the unarmed madrassa students to come out of the complex and surrender. That left Abdul Rashid Gazi and a few die-hard militants, along with many women and children, whom the government claimed were hostages.

After a final round of negotiations, which Musharraf claims failed, army commandos from the Special Services Group (SSG) stormed Lal Masjid in an operation code-named Operation Silence. The ensuing gun battle killed 100 people, according to official figures. But more than 200 people, including women and children, have been missing since.

The government’s assertion that no women or children were killed in its operation contradicts its earlier claims that women and children were being held hostage.

The cloak of secrecy surrounding the operation — refusal to give the media access to Islamabad’s hospitals which are treating the injured, burying the dead with haste instead of handing over the bodies to the families, and the clean up of the mosque before allowing the media in — shows the government had something to hide.

Had it been a simple matter of the Pakistani state confronting monsters it nurtured for the Afghan and Kashmiri jihads, there would have been no need to cover things up. But Operation Silence was a massive show of force aimed at sending a message to the Pakistani military’s jihadi protégés. They must toe the government’s line or risk extermination.

Musharraf has painted the Lal Masjid incident as the beginning of a wider war against extremism. But Musharraf has declared war on militant extremists several times since 9/11 only to later compromise with them.

The manner in which Abdul Rashid Gazi made his last stand in the heart of Pakistan’s capital shows the militants are bolder and more fanatical than ever. Under Musharraf, Pakistan’s Islamist militancy has grown, not diminished.

Recent US intelligence assessments that Al Qaida has reorganised itself from Pakistan also imply Musharraf has failed to accomplish what the Bush administration publicly praises him for.

Double talk

Trained as an army commando, Musharraf thinks tactically rather than strategically. His only aim is to stay in power and to that end, he has made governing Pakistan a massive juggling act.

Musharraf tries to fit in several contradictory policies within his agenda. He wants to be seen as the man determined to save Pakistan from extremism but doesn’t want to end the close ties between the military and militant Islamists dating back to the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Pakistani-backed insurgency in Kashmir.

Although seen as promoting normalisation of relations with India, Musharraf is the same person who sabotaged the India-Pakistan peace process.

And, unlike his military predecessors who only jailed political opponents, Musharraf has kept two of his most significant challengers (Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif) in exile.

Musharraf allows media freedom but wants that freedom to be exercised only in his favour. More Pakistani journalists have been killed — or have disappeared — during the last five years than under any previous government.

Musharraf is seen as a key American ally. But in his book In the Line of Fire, Musharraf says he became an American collaborator only because he did not think Pakistan could fight the Americans and win.

Musharraf’s contradictions are endless. Even though he has brought a semblance of short-term stability and economic prosperity to Pakistan after years of relative chaos and limited economic growth, his failure to address any of Pakistan’s fundamental problems indicates that he may have laid the foundations of greater chaos, polarisation and violence in the years to come.