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Pervez Musharraf Faces Challenges

  • Gary Thomas

The decision to storm a pro-Taleban mosque in Islamabad posed human, military and political risks for Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf. He was already under sharp criticism for suspending the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The siege of the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, not only riveted public attention in Pakistan, but also took some political heat off the embattled president, at least temporarily. But analysts say things could now get even hotter for President Musharraf.

Farzana Shaikh, director of the Pakistan program at the British research institute Chatham House, says that in storming the mosque, General Musharraf may have been hoping to burnish his credentials as an opponent of Islamic extremism, especially in the West.

"It is a huge gamble, but one I think he believes will pay off. Whether or not that is the case, we will just have to wait and see. But I think certainly in the short term, what he is expecting is for his rather badly battered reputation as a bastion against Islamic extremism to be salvaged," says Shaikh.

But even though attacking the mosque was a gamble, analysts say General Musharraf had no choice but to move.

Pervez Musharraf's Challenge

Since January, students at the mosque had been on a campaign to impose their own radical Islamist rule in the Pakistani capital. They threatened shopkeepers selling Western films and abducted women they accused of being prostitutes. The standoff with the military began a week ago when students at the madrassa, the mosque's school, clashed with local security forces.

Bob Grenier, who was CIA station chief in Islamabad when General Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup, says the Pakistani leader could not abide a challenge to his rule in the very heart of the capital.

"Essentially, he was in a no-win situation. Given the stance that his government has taken against radicalism, to have these armed militants basically trying to set up a Taleban-like enclave, if you like, in the heart of the capital was obviously something that couldn't be tolerated,” says Grenier. “On the other hand, any sort of armed action was inevitably going to be seen as extremely heavy-handed."

Former Pakistani diplomat Husain Haqqani, now director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University, is among the many analysts and commentators -- both Western and Pakistani -- who say General Musharraf should have ordered the assault on the mosque and its school, long known for harboring extremist Islamists, much sooner.

"He definitely had to move. And, in fact, if he had moved earlier and not indulged these people, then certainly it would have been easier, perhaps,” says Haqqani. “There would have been fewer casualties a few months ago, when they had just started. That was the time to check their vigilantism -- a few arrests, and perhaps also the arrests of the leaders on the many occasions when they stepped out of the compound earlier. And that may have been a better option."

General Musharraf was already facing wide opposition for suspending the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Pakistan's Future

Farzana Shaikh says that in the aftermath of the storming of the mosque, General Musharraf could now find his government confronted by radical Islamist suicide bombers as well as street protests. If that happens, she says, he might be tempted to impose tighter restrictions to combat lawlessness.

"If there are, as I suspect there might well be, a wave of reprisals with suicide bombings -- Islamabad itself obviously has become very vulnerable to that kind of reprisal -- then I imagine that General Musharraf will be thinking very carefully about imposing some kind of emergency rule, possibly martial law. He is a man who is desperate now, desperate at any cost to salvage his reputation and ensure his re-election as president," says Shaikh.

Bob Grenier, who was also chief of the CIA's counterterrorism center, believes that once the smoke clears from the mosque attack, pressure will again grow and perhaps increase for a return to civilian rule in Pakistan.

"I certainly don't think that he comes out of this looking enhanced. At the end of the day it seems to me that this standoff, and particularly being in Islamabad, sort of is symptomatic of a general failure, if you will, of the overall government program in trying to remove extremism from the society,” says Grenier. “And so, if anything, it seems to me, that this is going to build up pressure, further pressure, on Musharraf to open the way for a return of the secular opposition."

Husain Haqqani says that while the secular opposition, whose main leaders are still barred from returning to the country, may hail General Musharraf for his tough stance against one segment of radical Islamists, that does not mean they will ease the political pressure on him.

"At this moment, it is unclear whether the non-Islamist, non-fundamentalist segment of Pakistani society will rally to him just because he finally showed that he had the spine to stand up to the Taleban within Pakistan. And there, too, it's one set of these people; it's not a nationwide campaign against extremism," says Haqqani.

Elections for both parliament and the presidency are scheduled to be held later this year. But analysts say any increased violence from Islamic extremists could cause General Musharraf to postpone the ballot.