Musharraf Gets Tough… But Don’t Get Your Hopes Up for a Second Act

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
The Weekly Standard
July 23, 2007

In a country that for the past year has consistently ceded ground to terrorists, the storming of the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad was a rare bit of good news. As Pakistani forces wrapped up their raid on July 11, their examination of 73 bodies recovered from the so-called red mosque suggested that most of the dead were militants–and that they included mosque leader Abdur Rashid Ghazi. Yet while Western observers would surely like to view the raid as evidence that Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf has regained his determination to fight terrorism, the facts counsel against undue optimism.

Pakistan’s move to clear the mosque following an extended standoff was indeed a major accomplishment. Lal Masjid leaders had recruited fighters and suicide bombers to fight coalition forces in Afghanistan. Abdur Rashid Ghazi and his brother Mohammed Abdul Aziz were known for issuing fatwas in favor of what one U.S. intelligence source described as “every jihad imaginable.” Both brothers met fitting ends: Abdur Rashid died, and Abdul Aziz was captured trying to flee while disguised as a woman in a burka.

The Lal Masjid was by no means Pakistan’s most militant mosque, but its location in the capital made it a conspicuous symbol of the challenge Musharraf faces. Tensions between the mosque and the government have simmered for years. The government mounted a botched raid in July 2005 after evidence emerged suggesting that one of the suicide bombers who had struck London’s mass transit system that month had been radicalized at the Lal Masjid.

These tensions reached a boil after mosque-affiliated vigilantes stepped up an anti-vice campaign in January, kidnapping people who contravened their austere version of Islamic law. Recently they kidnapped seven Chinese nationals whom they accused of running a brothel.

China applied enormous pressure to Musharraf. His previous attempts to order military strikes against the Lal Masjid had met with rebuffs. In late January, after the Pakistani army refused to raid the mosque, Musharraf ordered his air force to do so–only to see this order refused as well. Musharraf’s eventual solution was to send in 111 Brigade, which is personally loyal to him.

Though the raid on the Lal Masjid achieved Musharraf’s objectives, it would be unwise to conclude that he is finally getting tough on militants. More than anything, Musharraf’s handling of the affair highlights his weakness. He acted erratically and inconsistently, offering concessions precisely when he should have turned up the heat. Musharraf’s negotiations with the mosque could most charitably be described as a carrot and stick approach lacking any apparent strategy for shifting between the two.

The single most poorly timed move during the standoff came on July 6, when Musharraf offered amnesty to everyone holed up in the mosque on the very day he was targeted for assassination. There are differing accounts as to whether Musharraf made the offer before or after the assassination attempt–but no analyst I spoke with would have been surprised if it had followed the attempt on Musharraf’s life. In dealing with the Lal Masjid, Musharraf consistently followed up tough talk with concessions, right up until the raid began.

Moreover, that assassination attempt points to another vulnerability. Although the Pakistani government tried to downplay the incident, a senior U.S. military intelligence official confirmed that the early-morning attack on Musharraf’s plane as it took off from a military base in Rawalpindi came close. In fact, the assassins came so close with their makeshift antiaircraft gun mounted on the roof of an apartment building that they probably knew Musharraf’s flight plan. If so, then either Musharraf has very poor operational security, or he is compromised at a high level.

While neither scenario bodes well for Musharraf’s future, there is strong evidence to support the notion that he is compromised. Musharraf experienced two close calls in December 2003: A bomb blew up a bridge near Rawalpindi minutes after his car passed over it on December 14, and suicide truck bombs hit his convoy on the same road less than two weeks later. Although Pakistan’s military said no senior officers were involved, some observers think this announcement reflected a desire to avoid facing hard facts.

The Lal Masjid raid occurs against the backdrop of the government’s major land concessions to extremist elements over the past year. Pakistan essentially ceded the Waziristan and Bajaur tribal agencies to the Taliban and al Qaeda by announcing “peace deals” providing that the Pakistani military would no longer carry out strikes there. U.S. intelligence recently concluded that al Qaeda’s operating capabilities are now at levels they have not reached since the months just before the 9/11 attacks–largely because Pakistan has provided this haven.

Nor does the Lal Masjid raid signal the end of such concessions. In late May, Pakistan reached a similar agreement with Maulana Fazlullah, a cleric affiliated with the extremist Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM), over the district of Swat, in the North-West Frontier Province. Even as Pakistan acted against the Lal Masjid, Fazlullah took to the FM radio airwaves, demanding that his supporters avenge the mosque by fighting the government. His followers carried out four major attacks against police between July 3 and July 7. This clear violation of Pakistan’s peace deal with Fazlullah resulted in hand-wringing on the government’s part, not retaliation.

Far from being an aberration, Musharraf’s poor handling of the latest crisis is emblematic of the larger picture. The fact that he seems to be governing without a strategy–acting erratically and in a flatly contradictory fashion–makes many analysts fear that he is losing his grip on power.

If Musharraf does lose power, the best-case scenario would probably be for a similar military officer (relatively pro-Western but unlikely to challenge extremist domination of the tribal areas) to replace him. But this outcome is by no means inevitable. Prominent Pakistani military and intelligence figures–individuals like retired Gen. Hamid Gul and Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg–are ideologically sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda. It is not inconceivable that they could seize power. Few have thought through the tremendous geopolitical implications of such a succession. Given Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the changes to the global war on terror would be instantaneous and dramatic.

The bottom line is that we should not expect the Lal Masjid raid to mark the beginning of a sustained campaign against Pakistan’s powerful Islamic militant factions. In fact, the situation could get worse–and probably will.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam.

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