Militant backlash

Published : Aug 10, 2007 00:00 IST

Workers whitewashing the dome of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad.-FAROOQ NAEEM/AP

Workers whitewashing the dome of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad.-FAROOQ NAEEM/AP

It was under intense U.S. pressure that Musharraf ordered military action in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in the northwest.

A total of 102 people, including 11 security forces personnel, died in the military operation on Islamabads Lal Masjid in early July. The siege of the mosque had just begun when, in apparent retaliation, militant Islamists virtually declared war on the government, transporting it from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the tribal frontier right into the heart of the capital, killing more than double that number by the end of the month.

In North Waziristan and in the NWFP areas bordering the tribal frontier, a wave of suicide killings targeted security forces in shocking succession and also claimed a number of civilian lives. As many as 54 people died in a single day. On that day, July 19, a suicide bomber tried to ram his explosives-packed car into a van transporting Chinese engineers from the southern Balochistan industrial city of Hub to Karachi but could only blow up a police vehicle that blocked his way. The Chinese escaped unhurt, but the blast killed 30 people, including policemen and passers-by. That morning, another explosives-laden car crashed into a gate at a police training school in Hangu in the NWFP, killing six bystanders and a policeman. At night, another suicide attack, inside a mosque in the Kohat military cantonment, killed 18 people including three children.

Two days earlier, the uneasy calm over Islamabad after the Lal Masjid operation was shattered when a bomber struck at a rally that was to be addressed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary; 18 people died. Most of the dead belonged to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), whose leader, Benazir Bhutto, supported the operation at the mosque.

On July 27, the wheel turned a full circle when a man walked up to a group of policemen standing near an outdoor milk-shake stall at a popular restaurant in Aabpara in the vicinity of the Lal Masjid and detonated himself, killing at least 14 people, including seven policemen. A few hours earlier, the government had reopened the mosque, the damage of the gun battles during the military operation repaired and the building redone in off-white rather than the red of its name. Violent clashes marked the reopening as the Friday worshippers, many of them students from the Lal Masjids associated madrassas, refused to pray with the new head cleric appointed by the government.

If the suicide attacks were evidence of the organisation among the militants, the fresh confrontation at the mosque, days after the Pakistan Army carried out a raid inside, demonstrated their determination and ability to challenge the government repeatedly.

Some analysts link the violence directly to a video message by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the no. 2 in al Qaeda, condemning the military raid on the Lal Masjid and asking Pakistanis to revolt or else Musharraf will annihilate you. The militant resurgence that followed appeared to be aimed as much at the strike in the Lal Masjid as against President Musharrafs new resolve to take on the militants at the source, in their sanctuaries in Pakistans Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the border with Afghanistan. According to the recently released National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a periodic summary of the work of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, al Qaeda has found a haven in FATA.

Musharraf first voiced his intention to flush out militancy and extremism from every corner of the country in an address to the nation a day after the operation in the mosque, linking those who fought the security forces from inside the mosque, including its hard-line cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, to the militant elements in FATA.

But with immense pressure from the U.S. on Pakistan to take on militants in the tribal areas, President Musharraf may have had no choice in the matter. What the Lal Masjid crisis did was give him an opening that allowed the building of a credible domestic reason for action by the military in FATA, rather than be seen as acting under U.S. orders.

Within hours of the Presidents declaration, the military was deploying troops in the NWFP, particularly in districts bordering FATA. Troops had already been redeployed a week earlier in North Waziristan. This was a tacit admission by the Pakistan government of the failure of its September 2005 peace agreement with the pro-Taliban tribal people in the region dismantling checkposts and halting the war on terror military operations in return for tribal commitments not to support militancy or cross-border incursions into Afghanistan.

Lest the determination weaken, the George W. Bush administration kept a tight hold on Musharraf. A host of top U.S. officials, including Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend, hinted at the possibility of unilateral military strikes in FATA against suspected al Qaeda havens mentioned in the NIE report. In a steady build up of pressure, Bush said the report about al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan was troubling. He also pronounced the North Waziristan agreement not successful as the tribal people were unwilling and unable to go after al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Although the officials qualified the statements by saying that their first choice was to work in partnership with the Pakistan government, Islamabad bristled at the threats, saying strikes by foreign militaries on its territory would be unacceptable.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said the Pakistan military was capable of handling the militant threat by itself. Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri said the statements were irresponsible and should not be made, describing them as counterproductive to the joint efforts being made by his government and the U.S. to combat terrorism.

As if to demonstrate that it would not take orders from anyone, Pakistan declared it was trying to salvage the accord after the tribal people tore it up on July 15, citing the redeployment of troops as a violation of the terms of the agreement. NWFP Governor Lt.Gen. (retd) Ali Mohammed Jan Aurakzai initiated talks with the militants through a team of tribal notables. Nothing came of the effort, but the Governor said he was leaving the door open for negotiations.

We are fighting terrorists not at the behest of any other country but in the interests of Pakistan, declared Kasuri, as security operations started showing some results. In a weekend of skirmishes with security forces, 35 militants were killed. An operation in Balochistan resulted in the killing of a prominent Pakistani Taliban leader, Abdullah Mehsud.

The one-legged Mehsud spent two years in Guantanamo, the U.S. offshore prison in Cuba, and on returning to Pakistan after his release in 2004, his first act was to kidnap two Chinese engineers working in South Waziristan, one of whom was eventually killed. Mehsud is reported to have boasted that he carried out the kidnapping only to embarrass Musharraf in front of China, whose friendship Pakistan values greatly. Officials said that on July 24, as security forces surrounded the house in which Mehsud was staying in Zhob, the Taliban leader blew himself up with a hand grenade.

The surge in militant attacks has made Musharraf seem even weaker than before, and the pressure from the U.S. is adding to his unpopularity, but the message from the Pakistan leader is that the country needs him more than ever. In an interaction with the editors of Pakistani newspapers, Musharraf said the country was now in a direct confrontation with the extremists. Only a unified command could meet the challenge, he said. In order to ensure this, he would stand for re-election from the outgoing Assemblies while retaining his military uniform. But within Pakistan, there are more takers for the argument that restoration of democracy is the best way to tackle militancy and extremism.

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