July 4, 2007Foreign Affairs

Poor brinkmanship at Lal Masjid

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The leader of Lal Masjid and its associated madrassas is neither an ordinary fire-breathing Islamic cleric, nor the run-of-the-mill Islamist politician like the sorts who constitute the MMA. The sheer audacity with which he and his students’ thumbed their noses at the Musharraf regime—‘arresting’ policemen and what not—can only indicate one thing: that it is the instrument of a powerful faction within the military establishment—a faction that we call Hamid Gul & Co’. But when the Lal Masjid’s taliban messed with Chinese masseuses, with exquisite timing—just as Pakistan’s interior minister was visiting Beijing—it was an act that went too far. As this blog wrote: [T]here is a tenuous balance. Upsetting that balance—through overreach or under-protection—can be very counterproductive.”

In order to placate the Chinese, Gen Musharraf moved paramilitary troops from the Rangers into the Lal Masjid theatre. He issued threats to storm the mosque and madrassa complex, but did not issue orders, for brinkmanship is mainly a mind game. It is tension that is ratcheted up, not violence. He sought to buy time by releasing people like Khalid Khawaja, a member of Gul & Co. The other element of good brinkmanship is control—the ability to prevent the actors involved from going off the brink. The paramilitary Rangers being a relatively more disciplined force, it was easy for Musharraf to practice good brinkmanship.

It was quite another story for Gul & Co and its man in the field, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the Lal Masjid’s leader. Uncertainties and weaknesses in their chain of command, accompanied by zealotry among their foot-soldiers, makes that bunch hard to control. As long as it was the hapless civilian police force of Islamabad that the taliban were dealing with, they could get away with anything. But the Rangers are a different type of adversary, with very different rules of engagement. So it was that when the taliban attempted to carry out another of their recent escapades, they ended up in a firefight. Over 10 people died.

One need not wait for a government spokesman to declare that it was the taliban who started the violence. For if Musharraf really wanted security forces to storm the mosque they would have do so with the element of surprise, with adequate resources and more importantly, would have completed the job. Yesterday’s violence at Lal Masjid, therefore, was the result of poor brinkmanship by Ghazi.

But was it intentional? In other words, did Gul & Co decide to move beyond brinkmanship, hoping to draw the Musharraf regime into a bloody confrontation. It’s possible—for there are too many scenarios in which the end-game for the acolytes of Lal Masjid is the martyrdom that they so crave. It might even be the new mango crate way to topple Musharraf—whose personal security may be more robust than Gen Zia’s—without necessarily assassinating him. In the event, Musharraf cannot be seen as chickening out now.

At times like this it is normal for people to speculate that Pakistan might be close to an Islamist’ take-over. Making predictions is fraught with risks. Nevertheless, here is one: the person to succeed Musharraf will be the same or another Musharraf. That’s how this movie ends. Not before it scares you some more though.



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