Lal Masjid backlash tests Musharraf

The two separate bomb attacks in Pakistan on Thursday in Hub, near Karachi, where 26 people were killed and in the NWFP town of Hangu, where seven police trainees were decimated by a suicide car bomber take the post-Lal Masjid death toll to 193. And, from all indications, it is likely to increase. This determined and bloody response by right-wing groups to Pervez Musharraf's decision to crack down on religious extremists in his country will test his many skills honed over the past eight years since assuming power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

The Lal Masjid episode and its turbulent aftermath have revealed three critical faultlines in Pakistan's polity. The unholy alliance between the Pakistani military and the mullahs goes back to the Zia years and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the eighties. The quip at the time was that three 'A's shaped Pakistan's destiny the Army, Allah and America and the power-sharing arrangement in the country.

The cracks in this tri-lateral set-up showed up after 9/11, and George Bush's decision to force Musharraf's hand over the Taliban led to the first U-turn in the Pakistan military's strategic policy orientation. The Taliban leadership was ostensibly abandoned, at least in the public sphere; but Musharraf made his Faustian bargain with the right-wing political parties the MMA alliance to consolidate his political base and ensure his election as president. This deal lies at the root of the Lal Masjid episode and it was common knowledge, both within the country and among Pakistan watchers, that the military had tacitly encouraged the Lal Masjid clergy to expand its influence, both in Islamabad and along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Furthermore, many serving and retired members of the military fraternity have over the last 25 years become staunch advocates of the conservative brand of Islam espoused by the religious right-wing. Apart from retired generals, such as Hamid Gul and Aslam Beg, there are serving generals in the Pakistan army (including the ISI) whose close family members were part of the Lal Masjid network. The long rope given to the Masjid's clerics by Musharraf is attributed to this sympathetic faction within the military. The Lal Masjid operation itself and the lethality of the arms and ammunition that were recovered are indicative of a deep collusion between elements of the security establishment and the mullahs. The scale of the violence triggered in the last 10 days 200 have died would suggest there is a deep cleavage within the military. The vernacular press has denounced the Musharraf regime for using an army of Allah against its own true believers, and the killing of police trainees in Hangu is perceived as a warning and corresponds to the Iraq and Afghan experience.

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