Pakistan's former president and military ruler General Pervez Musharraf's trial for treason is all the rage in the the country's media. But another high-profile case haunting him has perhaps bigger implications for national unity.
The former president's October 10 re-arrest in the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) case reopened a festering national wound. While the July 2007 operation settled any doubts about the military's much reduced tolerance for militant clerical outfits, it also drove a wedge through society just when it was already sharply divided over the government's war-on-terror loyalties.
Since Lal Masjid provided a center for the most glaring examples of raising mujahideen for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and
then typified long-sponsored proxies turning on the state, it is only fitting that it played a pivotal role in triggering and hosting the drama that ultimately ended the long embrace between the military and the mullahs.
The assault also led to the creation of the Punjabi Taliban. The most lethal component of the Pakistan Taliban, the Punjabi Taliban has been responsible for some of the country's most high-profile terror attacks, such as the 2009 assault on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore and a deadly terrorist attack on Pakistan army headquarters the same year.
Once upon a time
Both intelligence and tribal old-timers remember a time when the old arrangement still held force in the autonomous agencies bordering Afghanistan. The army had never been to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, chiefs called maliks represented tribal jirgas, councils of elders, and the government interacted through its "political agents", a remnant of the colonial Raj. The clergy, though respected in the fiercely conservative environment, was kept out of the decision-making loop.
The setup was not without its faults, none bigger than when the odd malik accepting foreign agency bribes, usually US dollars, to dispute the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was to the maliks that Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq's agencies turned when the decision was made to raise small tribal lashkars (armies) to help Afghanistan's anti-Soviet resistance.
But the maliks procrastinated, so the agencies tried the clergy and their fiery Friday sermons "It was because of the maliks that all attention came to rest on religious circles", say tribal sources. "These developments elevated the clergy to unprecedented political heights, something neither it nor the region was accustomed to".
Fast forward half a decade and the ISI was routinely routing CIA money to Saudi madrassas across the tribal belt, enabling the latter to transform impressionable local youth and children into soldier-clerics doing "God's work", waging jihad against godless communist infidels.
Soon, low and sometimes middle class volunteers from across the Muslim world poured through these madrassas, learning CIA programmed jihadi guerilla tactics, and becoming part of the legend that bled the Soviets by a thousand cuts.
Zia leveraged Pakistan's position as ideal conduit to the maximum, squeezing legitimacy, arms deals, etc, and hundreds of millions of CIA fund - matched first dollar-for-dollar then two-for-one by Saudi intelligence - to compensate some of the people who had had to do a lot of the dirty work. The Americans were ecstatic and retreated across the Atlantic. And the Saudis learned a clever way of exporting their extremist Wahhabi ideology to the Muslim world.
It was at the height of this war, which the mullahs never tire of romanticizing, that Lal Masjid started receiving state patronage, becoming the most ominous symbol of the not-so-covert operation. It retained strong influence in Afghanistan all the way through the resistance, the long civil war, and with the Taliban government, which was supported by Islamabad, especially since Mullah Omar's caliphate seemed in sync with the military's "strategic depth" across a secure western border.
Your friendly neighborhood mujahideen
But the clergy was outraged when Musharraf sided with Washington after the September 11, 2001 attacks. At first its position was much like the political opposition's, with it accusing the president of caving in to President Bush's "with us or against us" threat.
Relations further soured when the army rolled into the tribal area in 2004 to chase fleeing Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, and clear battle lines were drawn when the Lal Masjid issued a fatwa, or religious edict, in 2005, forbidding Muslim burials of Pakistani soldiers killed fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The fatwa was followed by desertions in the military, with instances of soldiers refusing to fire at "Muslim brothers", even if they were mostly al-Qaeda who fled Afghanistan and openly rallied to punish Islamabad for its collusion with Washington.
The military's jihadist focus predates the Saudi madrassas and lies at the roots of Pakistan itself, especially its ideological Islamic basis. The clergy's unprecedented and outright denunciation of its top command split the rank and file, especially the lower cadre which comes from more conservative backgrounds.
Lal Masjid clerics played no small part in portraying Musharraf's about-turn on the Taliban as an attack on Islam itself. By the time their burkha-clad, baton wielding female students were enforcing their own Sharia readings on book shops and massage parlours - drawing the international press's ridicule - much of the public, especially away from main cities, was confused about who was their preferred mujahideen.
And as repeated intelligence reports confirmed presence of foreign fighters and a lot of ammunition in the Lal Masjid compound, a direct confrontation developed. Away from public view, secret US embassy cables, later published by WikiLeaks, cited concerns that "talibanization" was spreading from the tribal area down to the frontier province and beyond.
The operation came on July 3, 2007. Despite the Masjid clerics' open threats of suicide bombings, its insistence of implementing its own reading of Sharia, and its hosting of al-Qaeda operatives - resulting in a 30-hour gun-battle that paralyzed Islamabad. Secular voices backing Musharraf's crushing of an obvious militant revolt were crowded out by extremists claiming a foreign agent was bent upon destroying the country's Muslim identity. The foreign press, too, regretted a softer approach like cordoning off the Masjid for a longer period was not considered.
By this time, the popular press had become accustomed to guerilla skirmishes between the Pakistani military and militant groups in the tribal region. But it wasn't yet known that anti-government groups in FATA, that later merged into the Tehreek-e-Taliban, were actually mobilized after a violent falling out between the Afghan Taliban and their old friends from al-Qaeda.
According to intelligence chatter, Mullah Omar forbade engagement with the Pakistani military, limiting the insurgency to NATO/ISAF occupation troops. The move was interpreted by some as a maneuver to retain favor with old friends in Pakistan's security establishment.
But al-Qaeda harbored more expansionist ideals, and Pakistan was an essential theatre of war. The mix of ready finances, good contacts in the arms bazaar, and tribal grievances against Musharraf's "anti-Islam" position enabled al-Qaeda to bankroll the multi-party TTP, an umbrella organization comprising dozens of armed tribal militias. Yet while knitting together the TTP alliance was a clear victory for al-Qaeda, its influence, however militant, remained largely confined to the tribal belt.
After the Lal Masjid operation, however, the military's more focused armed groups - who were initially channeled from the Afghan civil war towards Kashmir's peaks and valleys, but had later developed lethal sectarian streaks - also revolted. These were groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, mostly spread across central Punjab districts of Jhang, Bahawalpur, Khanewal and Multan, where Shi'ite-Sunni faultlines have been most prominent.
The fate of the Lal Masjid convinced them that Musharraf had finally decided to strike hard, and they found common cause and ready sanctuary with the TTP. While the TTP's original Pashtun groups have remained largely confined to their tribal agencies, these groups, now called Punjabi Taliban, have enabled al-Qaeda to make far deeper incursions inside Pakistan's urban centers.
Their long association with intelligence and familiarity with their methods has produced some startling attacks, targeting, among others, the some of the military's most sensitive installations and its most senior officers.
"There is no doubt it was a watershed moment", said General (retired) Hameed Gul, ISI chief during and immediately after the Soviet withdrawal and a prominent right leaning voice in national politics ever since. "But perception is stronger than reality and the Americans tried to portray Pakistan's clerical establishment as an extension of al-Qaeda. George Bush's radio address after the operation, claiming it as part of the war on terror, was misleading".
Contrary voices accused of the mullah lobby of employing the same propaganda tactics to justify its repeated breaches of the law, to the point of dismissing state authority altogether and setting up alternate Sharia justice delivery systems. It wasn't until TTP's capturing and beheading of soldiers had become habitual that the military overcame its confusion, even if other, even secular, voices still find it hard to clear the military of all association with the mullahs.
"It is a myth that the Lal Masjid operation increased conflict between the military and jihadis", said Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, author of the controversial book Military Inc. "This was a period when a lot of jihadi groups were becoming more forceful in engaging the state".
Dr Siddiqa needs to see more proof of the ISI really having cut its umbilical chord with proxy militias. High profile hits targeting the army GHQ, ISI offices, etc, while betraying serious differences, could also have been some groups flashing the 'or else card'. Perhaps both sides are just pushing far enough to give the perception of a real fight, despite the ugly reality that approximately 50,000 people have died.
"They (military intelligence) apprehend Pashtun commanders now and then, but you never hear of a Punjabi Taliban commander captured", Dr Siddiqa added.
"It is no secret that they publicly claim outrageous attacks, especially sectarian incidents. And they are not very far from the reach of the law".
From here on
In all the years since the Afghan war became Pakistan's, the military has had to radically reorient its posture, from facing just the old eastern front to facing fronts on its eastern and western borders as well as the internal TTP threat. With the police having proved a failure and the administrative structure not seeming strong enough, especially in the tribal area, the army's troubles are growing bigger by the day.
Now, new TTP chief Maulana Fazlullah's threat of increased urbanization of the insurgency, especially in Punjab, means the Punjabi Taliban have been taken on board for perhaps another round of confrontation with their former masters. In meeting these threats, the military did indeed befriend select groups - the object of constant ridicule in the foreign press - and its counterinsurgency (COIN) successes so far have been more impressive than the Americans' across the border.
Shahab Jafry is a financial and conflict journalist with a special interest in AfPak and Arab Spring insurgencies.
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