Battered Musharraf playing with fire

By Farzana Saikh, an associate Fellow at Chatham House (THE TIMES, 11/07/07):

President Musharraf is in a bind. Amid the bloody devastation caused by his decision to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad, he will be seeking desperately to salvage his reputation. The badly battered military ruler of Pakistan needs to be seen as a bastion against extremism if he is to win support from his Western allies, especially the United States.

But Musharraf’s actions in power have set Pakistan dangerously off course. The appeasement policies of successive regimes – cultivating Islamist groups to shore up their fragile legitimacy – have bedevilled the country. It now faces its worst crisis since the secession of Bangladesh in 1971.

Musharraf’s confused handling of the Red Mosque crisis is likely to be central to his own demise. First, he laid siege to it and issued an ultimatum to the radicals inside “to surrender or die”. Then he suddenly announced he was ready to negotiate to save hundreds of women and children held hostage inside the mosque. However, the mediators in these negotiations were hardly neutral players: Musharraf turned for help to the Pakistani Ulema Council, a private body of religious scholars that last month announced a special award for Osama bin Laden in retaliation against the decision to knight Salman Rushdie.

Overseeing their efforts was Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of the pro-government party, the Pakistan Muslim League. He is known for agreeing to demands by Islamic religious parties last year to dilute legislation that would have amended religious laws discriminating against women.

Not surprisingly, fears resurfaced that Musharraf was poised once again to appease Muslim extremists. Nor would these concerns be misplaced. Since entering into a series of controversial peace agreements with tribal militants in the border areas of North and South Waziristan in 2005-06, Musharraf has turned a blind eye to the Islamist activities. Stern warnings from the United States of the risk that appeasement posed to Afghanistan went unheeded. So too did alarm bells inside Pakistan announcing “creeping Talebanisation”.

It was just a matter of time before Islamic radicals, emboldened by this apparent lack of resolve, tried their hand at bringing vigilante justice to the streets of the capital. Indeed, it was just such an attempt that brought the Red Mosque and its militants into headlong confrontation with Musharraf. In so doing they finally breached the cordial relations between the Red Mosque and Pakistan’s military high command, which date back to the 1980s.

Pakistan’s military ruler at that time, General Zia ul-Haq, was instrumental in forging these ties. He approved the expansion of the Red Mosque, in the heart of the capital, and entrusted its administration to Maulana Abdullah, an obscure hardline cleric from the Deobandi sect. In return Abdullah promised to enlist recruits for the jihad against Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Soon the mosque, along with its two madrassas, emerged as the first port of call for jihadi groups, notably al-Qaeda. Through much of the 1990s the Red Mosque also enjoyed the patronage of the country’s premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Its headquarters are located a stone’s throw away from the mosque, which served as a convenient meeting point for ISI members.

The events of 9/11 ruptured this cosy arrangement. Musharraf’s decision to launch a military operation against the Taleban in the tribal areas incurred the wrath of Abdullah’s family. Though Abdullah himself had been killed by gunmen in 1999, his sons, Maulanas Aziz and Ghazi, killed yesterday during the attack on the Red Mosque, assumed his jihadi mantle – this time in opposition to the regime. They issued fatwas banning Muslim funeral rites for Pakistani soldiers killed in action against the Taleban and endorsed calls for Musharraf to be killed.

The response to these naked challenges to Musharraf’s authority was muted, if not indulgent. Early this year when Red Mosque students seized control of a children’s library in protest against the planned demolition of illegally constructed mosques in the capital, Musharraf reacted by laughing off what he described as the antics of “kids”. Not even a sustained campaign by extremists to kidnap policemen, raid homes and ransack commercial properties, in an effort to “cleanse” the capital of “vice dens”, could stir the Government to action. It justified its restraint saying it feared suicide attacks.

The tipping point came with the abduction in June of seven Chinese workers accused by the militants of running a brothel. This was followed by the killing of three more Chinese nationals by Islamist militants in Peshawar, in the North West Frontier Province, two days before the mosque was finally stormed.

The attacks triggered an unusually angry response from China, an influential investor in Pakistan. The United States also cautioned Musharraf against any deal involving safe passage for the militants – a sticking point that finally led to the collapse of the negotiations and the recourse to force.

The question now is whether Musharraf’s strategy will pay off. He is heir to a well-established legacy of close cooperation between Islamist groups and a military that has ruled the country for more than half its history. Even if, in time, the Islamists are defeated, they are unlikely to go down without a fight. The cost to Musharraf could be incalculable.