A moment of truth for Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad: Asia times, July 9, 2007
KARACHI - Six days into the offensive against the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf was on Monday desperately searching for a way to contain the damage from the bloody confrontation.
Unrest over the clashes between armed students (and possibly foreign militants) inside the mosque and government forces has spread to Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the semi-autonomous tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. An army division (10,000-20,000 soldiers) has been sent to Swat Valley in NWFP to confront the allies of Lal Masjid as well as pro-Taliban Tehrik-i-Nifaz-Shariat-i-Mohammedi (TNSM) militants. There are also preparations for a massive army operation in the North Waziristan tribal area.
More than 20,000 tribesmen, including masked militants carrying rifles, protested in the northwest region of Bajaur. Four security personnel were also reported abducted in Bajaur as hostages to force the government into allowing those still inside Lal Masjid a free passage out. This is one of the options Musharraf and his inner circle are considering.
They are undoubtedly concerned that should they clear the mosque in one final military attack, violence across the country will only increase. Already, scores - if not hundreds - of people have died in the mosque siege. Indeed, there is even talk of the unrest becoming so widespread that it would justify calling in North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led troops in Afghanistan to extend the "war on terror" into Pakistan territory.
For the al-Qaeda leadership sitting in the tribal areas, the situation is fast evolving into the promised battle of Khorasan. This includes parts of Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan from where the Prophet Mohammed promised the "end of time" battle would start.
Jihadist circles clearly want to exploit the crisis to boost themselves as major players, and envisage even a share in the power in Islamabad.
A contact in the TNSM told Asia Times Online that after a clash with security forces on Saturday, they sensed a big operation was coming, so they mobilized their men. The contact said that even a division would not be much use against them. "We have activated our men from Dir, Malakand, Swat and Mengora and are ready to take on the government all over the country," the TNSM source said.
Three Chinese nationals were killed in Peshawar, NWFP, on Sunday. They are unlikely to have been preferred targets, but militants want to make the brutal point that the writ of the government means little in this area.
"In this whole situation of Lal Masjid, the government of Pakistan is plumb in the hands of vested interest groups - be it jihadis or Washington," said retired General Hamid Gul, a former director general the Inter-Services Intelligence. Gul believes that Musharraf's troubles started when he began his "game of deceptions" after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US and ditched Pakistan's allies, the Taliban, under Western pressure.
"Musharraf used the post-September 11 situation at all external and internal fronts to get support for his government. He gave rope to Lal Masjid for a very long time and used it to downplay genuine issues, like the movement of opposition parties," Gul said.
"People from Lal Masjid were in contact with the Pakistani establishment, which was confident it could play the situation as it liked. But now the situation is in the hands of jihadis - not in the hands of Abdul Rashid Ghazi [one of two brothers who runs Lal Masjid and who is still in the mosque] or the establishment.
"I don't see any solution except that the militants are given a safe passage, otherwise the situation will deteriorate and go way beyond the control of the government," said Gul, who is considered one of the architects of the jihadist movements in Pakistan, Kashmir and Afghanistan.
"A serious situation is evolving and if any [further] operation is conducted against Lal Masjid it will simply radicalize the religious centers of the country. There are 250,000-275,000 mosques in the country. Think what would happen if all those centers were radicalized.
"The jihadis want this sort of situation, and eventually it will prompt Western armies to enter Pakistan to attack Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. The government should realize what lies ahead. It is a pity that our army was preparing youths to seize Lal Qala [the Red Fort of Delhi] and they ended up seizing the Lal Masjid," Gul said.
The Lal Masjid situation deteriorated on Sunday when a commando operation in the early hours of the morning went badly wrong. The commandos had planned to break down one of the mosque's walls, but were caught in a trap. The leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Haroon Ul Islam, died in the subsequent gunfight.
A Pakistani official told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, "They [those remaining in the mosque] are not ordinary students or jihadis. They are very well-trained militants. The way they trapped our commandos, it just could not be the handiwork of a Pakistani jihadi. We are sure that there are some Arabs inside, and possibly a high-value target is commanding them."
The establishment later gave out the names of two Arab commanders of al-Qaeda - Abu Zar and Abu Masoor - as being in the mosque. This could not be verified.
On Sunday, Ghazi sent text messages to the mobile telephones of all the journalists with whom he had previously been in contact, including this one. It read: "We have all tied bombs to our bodies. We will fight till the last and will not embarrass our friends."
"Father of the Taliban" Maulana Sami ul-Haq, who is director and chancellor of a famous madrassa in NWFP and a politician, has warned that if Lal Masjid is destroyed, suicide attacks can be expected all over the country.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved)