Geopolitical Diary: The War Between Pakistan and its Ex-Proxies
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
After days of avoiding an all-out assault against the mosque/madrassa complex, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf reportedly has issued orders to storm the Red Mosque in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. The government also has claimed that the Islamist militants holed up in the mosque include both wanted hard-core Pakistani jihadists and foreign fighters — mostly Arabs — affiliated with al Qaeda. The six-day security operation to dislodge Islamist militants from the Red Mosque thus appears to have entered a decisive stage. The government's new claims could have some merit, thus warranting an examination of the facts associated with the operation. The Pakistanis, fearing possible public backlash in an already charged political atmosphere, have until now avoided taking the facility by force. Nonetheless, the government has brought in some of its best security units to flush the militants from the mosque. These include the army's 111th Brigade, its Special Services Group (SSG) commando force, the ninth wing of the Pakistan Rangers paramilitary force and the elite anti-terrorism squad of the Punjab police. Despite being up against some 12,000 well-trained, professional and heavily armed security personnel, the militants inside the Red Mosque have managed to hold their ground. They have managed to survive several days of intense bombardment in the form of shelling and gunfire. Moreover, they managed to kill a commander of the SSG (a lieutenant colonel) during one operation late July 6. All of this does not appear to be the work of mere seminary students who are followers of the rogue mullahs running the Red Mosque, perhaps boasting only a little experience handling an AK-47. Radical seminary students do not possess the skills to strategize against — let alone hold off — a superior force. Holding out in the face of insurmountable odds demands a certain level of nerve as well. The leaders of the resistance in the mosque probably are battle-hardened jihadists, not a mere ragtag band of seminarian zealots, which raises a number of questions. How did these elements establish themselves in a major mosque in the South Asian country's capital, just a few miles from the city's diplomatic enclave, key government institutions and — above all — the headquarters of the country's premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate? How did the fighters procure the weapons and other supplies needed to sustain such a standoff without setting off alarms? Why are the militants able to make back-channel contacts with some key top officials even after the government has made it clear the fighters must surrender unconditionally? The answers to such questions are not readily available, but the questions themselves bolster claims that the Pakistani state, especially its military and intelligence agencies, has been significantly infiltrated by jihadist elements. This has directly resulted from the army's past practice of employing Islamist militant actors to pursue its domestic and foreign policy objectives. Pakistani media reported July 7 that a close relative of the mullahs controlling the Red Mosque is the driver for Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, and he was also the driver for the minister's two predecessors. Meanwhile, the bodyguard of the deputy leader is an employee of the National Crisis Management Cell, led by retired Director-General Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema — who is also the Interior Ministry's spokesman. Consequently, these militants are not just challenging the writ of the state; they enjoy a significant number of sympathizers within both the government and wider society. The military leadership led by Musharraf might have embarked upon a strategic shift as far as the role of Islam in state and society is concerned, but clearly a large number of people both inside and outside the government do not subscribe to his philosophy of "enlightened moderation." Though radical Islamist forces constitute a minority, they constitute a significant one. And while the vast majority of Pakistanis do not support jihadists, they do not necessarily support Musharraf's agenda either. Overall, Pakistan lacks a national consensus regarding Islam's role in public affairs, something extremist and radical forces are exploiting. Therefore, the Red Mosque operation does not amount to a one-off event. Rather, it is likely the beginning of a long confrontation between the state and radical/militant Islamist forces. Such a clash will involve military operations in areas such as the North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as well as nationwide social unrest.