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.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi and Abdul Aziz took over the mosque in 1999, after their father and the Red Mosque’s founding cleric, Abdullah, was killed by Shiite assassins. They inherited the male and female madrassas he had established as well as the ISI-jihadi-Sunni sectarian nexus of power and patronage. At the same time they met Osama bin Laden, though there is no evidence they were ever part of his Al Qaeda network.
Musharraf’s 9/11 volt-face put the nexus under strain. But it didn’t snap until 2003, when, under American pressure, the Pakistani army invaded the tribal areas like North Waziristan to flush out the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. The tribal campaigns lasted three years, killed 700 soldiers and strengthened the Taliban, who mounted a successful guerilla war against the army. In 2005 and 2006 the government sued for peace. In return it gave the Taliban free reign in the tribal areas. (For an account of the tribal campaigns and their disastrous fallout, see my Nation article of April 16, “Pakistan’s Shaky Dictatorship.”)
The Red Mosque enjoyed solid ties with the Taliban, a movement Abdul Aziz said he “loved” and whose rule in Afghanistan he wanted emulated in Pakistan. Seventy percent of the Red Mosque’s 10,000 seminary students were from FATA and NWFP, including fighters schooled in several Afghan wars. But the Taliban was not merely an ideological inspiration. It offered a political strategy that transformed the Red Mosque from an instrument of state policy to an autonomous and armed redoubt ranged against the Musharraf government. Like the Taliban, it changed from ally to rival.
In North Waziristan the Taliban used the 2006 peace accord not only to regroup and provide a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters waging war against the US-supported Afghan regime of Hamid Karzai. It gave them the reprieve to territorialize their rule beyond the tribal areas to the settled towns and villages of the NWFP. The expansion was known as Talibanization.
Bands of armed madrassa students set up anti-vice patrols, banning music, trashing video stores and setting up their own parallel system of Sharia, or Islamic law. “We don’t have the capacity to bring an Islamic government throughout Pakistan. But we can enforce Sharia in the territories we control,” said Qari Sarfaz, a Taliban commander in Serai-Naurang, a town in the NWFP.
The Red Mosque followed suit. Its only novelty was that it did so not in the restive tribal regions but in the wide boulevards, mulberry-lined avenues and red villas of Islamabad, Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan city. In January female students occupied a public library in protest against government plans to demolish an illegally built extension to their madrassa. By March a Sharia court had been established, with anti-vice squads targeting video stores and alleged prostitutes. In June seven Chinese nationals were abducted, supposedly for running a brothel (actually an acupuncture clinic). Pressed by Beijing, Musharraf ordered the police to lay siege to the mosque. On July 3 students opened fire. The rest is known.
What is unknown is whether the escalation was planned or the clerics simply lost control of their wards. The army is adamant that the goal was always to ignite an armed uprising. “Our analysis of the failed negotiations [to end the siege of the mosque] only points in one direction–the militants were determined to trigger a full-fledged battle,” says a senior security official. Abdul Aziz, in the last interview he gave before his July 4 escape and arrest, said the escalation was conditional. The Taliban “in the NWFP and tribal areas will launch a military campaign,” he said, “if our religious school comes under attack.”
What is evident is that the Red Mosque was not the fixed idea of two crazed clerics. In policy, practice and aspiration it is part of a wider Talibanization campaign radiating from the tribal areas and threatening not just the state but all those forces committed to electoral politics, including Pakistan’s mainstream Islamist parties.
The Military Moderate Alliance
How will Musharraf meet the campaign, aside from sending more troops to join the 90,000 already in the NWFP and tribal areas? What political options does he have? Analysts see three.
The first is to declare a state of emergency. It is unclear how Washington would react to this, pleased though the Bush Administration is that their ally has apparently abandoned the policy of “peace” with the Taliban. But most Pakistanis would see martial law as a ruse for Musharraf to evade elections scheduled for later this year. And Musharraf has very little credit left: His decision to suspend the chief justice in March–ostensibly because of “misconduct” but actually because Chaudhry would have probably ruled as unconstitutional Musharraf’s desire to remain president and army chief of staff for another five-year term – has left him and his regime more isolated, more unpopular and weaker than at any point in its eight-year rule. For this reason the army may be reluctant to back an “emergency.” On July 18 Mushaffaf explicitly ruled out any declaration of a state of emergency. And, on July 20, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that the suspension of the Chief Justice was “illegal,” instructing his reinstatement, in a further blow to Musharraf’s authority (but a massive victory for Chaudhry and the Judiciary.) Musharraf said he would accept the decision of the court.
The second is to proceed with elections and rig them in his favor, as he did in 2002. But that was a long time ago. The suspension of Chaudhry has not only cost Musharraf esteem. It has triggered a mass civil and political protest movement unseen in Pakistan for years. The chief justice’s rally on July 17–the one that was bombed–was the latest in a series of demonstrations that have pulled thousands onto the streets. Nor is the carnage likely to dim the lawyers’ demands for Chaudhry’s reinstatement, an end to military rule and a civilian government based on free and fair elections. The people will no longer put up with a fake civilian government, warns Pakistani journalist and political commentator Ayaz Amir. “If Musharraf tries to rig the elections as he did in 2002, there will be protests across Pakistan. He can’t.”
The third option is for Musharraf to forge a coalition with national, secular and other parties based on a shared political consensus. This would need to define Talibanization as an existential threat to the Pakistani state, whether civilian or military. But it would also have to agree that the way to isolate the Taliban cannot be through force alone but by a program of social justice throughout Pakistan, with free, comprehensive and adequate public education being the priority. Otherwise, the Taliban will continue to recruit, indoctrinate and arm the poor and the powerless through mosques and madrassas, precisely as happened at the Red Mosque.
Yet it is clear that consensus will not be achieved unless Musharraf and the army at least begin a transition from military rule to democratic governance. A good place to start would be free and fair elections later this year and the unfettered return of authentic leaders like former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan People’s Party, according to polls the most popular party in the country.
“The Islamic system takes action wherever the state fails. And in Pakistan the state has collapsed in all departments–from policing to jobs to morality. In all, it’s only the elite who benefit,” said Abdul Rashid Ghazi two months before he was machine-gunned to death in an underground classroom near the Red Mosque. It is the clearest definition of Talibanization yet given. It is also why–for Pakistan–failure is no longer an option