Ayesha Siddiqa: The Indian Express, July 05, 2007
The fresh round of violence in Islamabad around Lal Masjid on Tuesday in which 12 people died has raised expectations of stern government action against the militant mullahs. The shoot-out started after some of the madrassa students tried to forcibly occupy a government office close-by in a bid to extend its tentacles and establish territorial control in the Pakistani capital.
However, Wednesday morning looked different as the authorities seemed more willing to solve the issue much more amicably, raising more questions about the state’s capacity or its intent to punish these mullahs who have challenged the government’s writ. Whatever the logic, the issue makes the state appear weak and with no capacity to punish the culprits.
Situated very close to the ISI headquarters near Aabpara market and about a mile away from the President’s office and Parliament, the militant mullahs of Lal Masjid and the burqa brigade of Madrassa Hafsa became visible in January 2007 after their invasion of an adjacent children’s library. Later, they kidnapped a well-connected prostitute followed by an illegal raid against a Chinese massage parlour located in a posh neighbourhood in F-8/3. Such actions have even got some people in the government and strategic circles, who in the past were great supporters of the Taliban, to condemn the politics of Lal Masjid’s two key mullahs, the brothers Ghazi Abul Rasheed and Abdul Aziz. The fear, of course, is that the activities of the Lal Masjid brigade are happening too close to home or where the most powerful of the country live.
For instance, the prostitute kidnapped a few months ago is known as Aunty Shamim who was visited by some important members of the establishment. Or the Chinese parlour was a place also frequented by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. The targets seem to be carefully selected which is not surprising due to the history of contacts between the Ghazi brothers and the intelligence agency, the ISI. The father of the Ghazi brothers was linked with the ISI during the Afghan war.
The agency, many in Islamabad believe, is still behind the Lal Masjid gang, especially since a mayhem in the capital is necessary to create confusion in Islamabad and in the minds of Pakistan watchers. Understandably, the diplomatic community does not look too impressed with the gun-battles being fought in the streets of Islamabad.
The government’s laxity is irksome for many including retired AVM Yousafzai who was of the view that killing thousands of these militants would only save the country and not harm it. But why did it take the authorities so much time to deal with the problem? The fear of repercussions, particularly suicide bombing, is one explanation. Lal Masjid can be a litmus test for general Musharraf to prove that he can actually enforce the writ of the state as he had done in Baluchistan where the army killed Nawab Akbar Bugti and many other Baluch nationalists just to enforce the authority of the state.
However, people continue to be sceptical about the government’s willingness to take any major action. After all, the government or the army has not taken any initiative to enforce law on the militants since the problem surfaced in January and there are two explanations for this. First, the Ghazi brothers are well connected, especially with the ISI and the agency would not want to see these people destroyed. Second, there is a need to keep this issue alive to divert attention from many other tricky issues. It is interesting that the recent provocation happened a day after the fiasco in the Supreme Court in which the agencies got a rap on the knuckles by the judiciary. Lal Masjid indeed is beneficial in diverting attention from the judicial fiasco or the dissatisfaction of the general public vis-à-vis the government’s unimpressive performance.
The issue also keeps the international community engaged with the Musharraf regime. With Lal Masjid in the background, General Musharraf appears akin to a dexterous Bollywood (in this case Lollywood) hero who can protect the nation and the world from ferocious militants. Unfortunately, such ploys have always cost the country heavily in terms of its socio-political balance. Islamabad’s inability to firmly deal with the Ghazi brothers would swell the size of the Lal Masjid brigade, especially when governance and civilian institutions have broken down. The appearance of Pakistan as a weak state is in no one’s benefit.
Siddiqa is the Islamabad-based author of ‘Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’.