Last week Pakistani army commandos seized Islamabad’s Red Mosque compound to force the surrender of several hundred clerics, militants and students holed up inside. More than a hundred were killed, including the mosque’s charismatic tribune, Abdul Rashid Ghazi. Thirteen hundred surrendered, including the mosque’s chief cleric and Ghazi’s brother, Abdul Aziz. It was the deadliest battle in Pakistan since the country’s military ruler, President-General Pervez Musharraf, declared war on “extremism and terrorism” after the 9/11 attacks on America.
What does the storming of the Red Mosque signify? For some it marks the rupture of that nexus of relations between the army and Islamist parties, the so-called “military-mullah alliance” that has ruled Pakistan for thirty years. Others say it is no more than a tactical feint by Musharraf brought on by the provocations of Ghazi and Aziz and pressure from the Americans. For them the alliance remains in place.
There is also a third view, which is in fact an outgrowth of the first. And that is, through the Red Mosque confrontation, Pakistan’s Talibanized Islamist movements have taken on the Pakistani state, casting it in the same pit as the pro-American governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
In the past five days more than 120 people have been killed by suicide attacks, mostly in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) but also, on July 17, in Islamabad, where seventeen were killed at an opposition rally for Pakistan’s suspended Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. The safe money is that the Taliban or pro-Taliban groups were behind these attacks, though in the Islamabad blast the suspicion cannot be ruled out that Pakistan’s lethal intelligence service may have been trying to rid its leader of a judge who has proved so adept at mobilizing the nation against him.
At the same time, the Taliban has announced it is scrapping a ten-month peace accord with the Pakistani government in the North Waziristan tribal agency bordering Afghanistan, invoking the specter of a full-fledged insurgency. Thousands of tribespeople are fleeing, as many soldiers are being rushed in.
Rarely has Pakistan felt so much like Iraq and Afghanistan. Is it heading the same way?
Unraveling the Alliance
If the military-mullah alliance has imploded, there could be no more fitting epitaph than the Red Mosque. It came to prominence twenty years ago on the back of the Islamization campaign of Pakistan’s then military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq. Supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency–and fueled by American and Saudi money–the Red Mosque was instrumental in two key state policies. It groomed jihadists to fight in Pakistan’s proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and against India in Kashmir. And it patronized Saudi-sponsored Sunni Islamists, who were engaged in sectarian battles against Shiite groups allied with Iran.