Deadly Fallout of Red Mosque Operation
Weekly Pulse
July 13-19, 2007
We were expecting an extremist backlash in the tribal belt of the Frontier province in the aftermath of the army operation at Lal Masjid in Islamabad, but not with such severity and reach. In three consecutive roadside and suicide bombing attacks—one in North Waziristan and two in Swat and Dera Ismail Khan, respectively—extremists were able to kill as many security personnel as the operation against Lal Masjid did: 72 against 75. The total death toll in each case, including that of civilians, was also over 100 in each case.

The extremist backlash was not jut confined to the already troubled tribal belt of the Frontier province, especially North Waziristan, but also to urban regions such as Swat and Dera Ismail Khan. Since most militants and students at Lal Masjid hailed from the Malakand Division, even before Operation Clean-up at Lal Masjid concluded, the Federal government began dispatching troops to the region to pre-empt any extremist fallout. But, instead, the extremists preempted the government’s move. Consequently, more troops were being deployed in the Malakand Division after the bombings, and the security was being tightened in the rest of the province.

In the days ahead, therefore, we should expect more extremist violence and greater forcible response from the army in the remote tribal and urban settled areas of the Frontier province. In North Waziristan, where the pro-Taliban tribal elders unilaterally revoked the 10-month old agreement with the government, the army operation may particularly gain momentum. In short, the battle lines seem to be now clearly drawn between the army and the extremists.

Taliban Insurgency

In other words, the Taliban insurgency is no more confined to Afghanistan alone, Pakistan’s frontier province has equally come under its grip. The only difference, however, is that the insurgency in Afghanistan is being combated by a well over 30 nation-NATO led by the United States; while the insurgency in the Frontier province will have to be combated by Pakistan’s army and other security forces alone.

This means the regime of President Pervez Musharraf is in for quite a troublesome future. It already faces a number of political challenges, the judicial crisis being the most potent one. A Supreme Court decision restoring the Chief Justice would most likely aggravate the political crisis. So might the decision to dissolve the current government. All of this happening in an election year with uncertainly prevailing over issue of President’s re-election with or without the uniform, and growing extremist militancy against the army and security forces, create an unfortunate situation that may require the state to declare emergency.

As far the extremist reaction to the Lal Masjid Operation is concerned, its main targets are army and other security forces. If the tug of war between the army and extremists gained further momentum, then the targets of suicide bombings may become random, creating the same terrorist outcome for the country’s population at large as visible in Iraq and somewhat in Afghanistan.

Devastating Scenario

Pakistan cannot afford such a devastating scenario. It is now that we have to do everything possible to avoid a situation whereby our country can be spared of a status of countries existing only in name such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Operation Silence and Clean-up against the militants and rigid clerics of Lal Masjid had become a necessity. We believe the government, until the end, tried to avoid the use of force, and that force was used only when it became absolutely essential.

President Musharraf was quite humble when he spoke to the nation giving his emotional response to the tragic outcome of the Lal Masjid episode. Such tolerant and flexible vision on the part of our leadership should be the hallmark of the strategy to tackle the post-Lal Masjid operation scenario.

After all, even after the 2001 U-turn on Taliban and the 2002 U-turn on extremist organizations operating in Indian-held Kashmir, the state maintained a level of tolerance vis-à-vis local extremists. Domestic political compulsions or regional strategic priorities may have led the government to pursue such a policy—that has repeatedly faced criticism from officials of the Bush administration—but it had a rationale: that extremism can be defeated better with words of moderation and tolerance than with guns and bombs.

Peace Accord

Even if the tribal jirga in North Waziristan has walked out of the peace accord, the government should not rule out the possibility of negotiating peace with the jirga concerned. Extremism can best be handled with a war of words, rather with the use of force. The army and security forces have to act violently only against those who act violently against it. An all out military operation in the Malakand Division would only create more extremists within a population whose demand for Sharia goes back to 1995, the year when the Taliban were rising in Afghanistan.

In the post-Lal Masjid period, Pakistan should come out relatively more stable country. Instead, the opposite is happening. With aggravating political situation and growing extremist danger, the situation will be ripe for an emergency rule—an eventuality we have to avoid in every possible way. And, obviously, just as the state has to act prudently for the purpose, the people and parties, however religiously rigid their ideas are, have to show the due patience and tolerance. After all, security personnel and civilians, all of us are the citizens of the same state!