By Shireen M Mazari
The inevitable finally
happened in the Jamia Hafsa-Lal Masjid saga and
the military operation against the terrorists commenced
– and still continues at the time this column
is being written. While dialogue and negotiations
were attempted by Ulema and politicians before and
after the preparations for the operation had begun
and the area was cordoned off, the language of the
leaders of Lal Masjid remained uncompromising.
They were simply not prepared to subject themselves
to the law of the land. In other words, they were
quite prepared to use women and children and adult
hostages as human shields until the state allowed
them their freedom – or what they referred
to as "safe passage". This safe passage
was demanded not just for the leadership but also
for the mass of dangerous home-grown and foreign
militants who had been gathering at the Lal Masjid
over the last few months when the state had effectively
withdrawn its writ from this area and allowed total
freedom of movement to and from the Lal Masjid and
Jamia Hafsa – raising some critical questions
relating to the state's "linkages" with
After all, it was simply inexplicable as to why
the state was not only refusing to act against a
clear and dangerous defiance of the writ of the
state but was also not restricting free access in
and out of the occupied areas.
The surprise as to the strong level of resistance,
the impressive military training of the terrorists
and the large cache of lethal weapons and communications'
hardware clearly reflects the lack of human intelligence
that could have been gathered over the last few
months if the activities had been carefully monitored.
Also, some of us had been warning that with the
successful separation of foreign militants from
some of the tribals in FATA, the former would be
seeking to move out and would try to "disappear"
into the populated urban centers of the country.
It seems that that is what happened in the case
of the Lal Masjid where a number of well-trained
foreign terrorists had amassed.
Interestingly, a number of foreign journalists and
analysts, especially American, were in frequent
contact with Abdul Rashid Ghazi and had been allowed
to view the military hardware he had surrounded
himself with (and some had reported this in their
stories/articles). As one of these analysts put
it: Ghazi was liked by the American journalists
because he was familiar with western idiom! Given
this level of superficiality, one wonders whether
his action against the Chinese endeared him further.
Meanwhile, during the course of the over six-day
direct stand-off between the state and the Jamia
Hafsa-Lal Masjid combine, a strange theatre of the
absurd began to unfold – with the burqa escape
attempt being just one reflection of it. What was
more distressing was how the Lal Masjid leadership
had continuous and free access to the media which
was used skillfully in efforts to give some level
of rationality to the extremist agenda. The human
angle of innocent children and women being held
captive was also successfully exploited through
the media which, at times, lost sight of the dangerous
designs of the Jamia Hafsa-Lal Masjid combine.
The role of the media, in fact, became central to
the whole issue and its public face, as journalists
risked their lives to provide on-the-spot reporting.
One cannot help but admire and commend the emerging
independent Pakistani media for their commitment
to report from the frontline. However, what is more
debatable is the discernible shift the media affected
in its own role – from being observers and
reporters of events to advisers and aspiring mediators
on possible courses of action. As the sleepless
nights and pressure began to tell on the media,
some showed a tendency to hysteria and there was
one bizarre instance when the government sought,
unnecessarily, to vacate the press club by force
and in response a media man declared that he would
reveal all as to how the security personnel were
deliberately targeting-to-kill journalists.
That the Lal Masjid incident was going to have countrywide
repercussions was also clear early on in the week
when security forces were attacked and once again
innocent Chinese lost their lives – this time
in Peshawar. Clearly, the terrorist networks linked
to Lal Masjid sought to undermine the Pakistan-China
relationship in an effort to weaken the Pakistani
state. With the actual commencement of the military
aspects of the operation, one has already heard
reports of protests in NWFP and efforts to block
the KKH – again revealing an indirect attack
on the Pakistan-China relationship...
What the final toll of this operation will be in
terms of innocent lives lost remains to be seen
but even one innocent Pakistani life lost is one
too many. But sometimes the state has little choice
and in this case any more leeway given to the terrorists
would have emboldened them into further acts of
terror. After all, this is what had happened so
far with the kidnappings and blackmail in order
to get their militant agenda furthered. With each
act of defiance and kidnapping, there were negotiations
and dialogue on the part of the state, followed
by yet another defiance of the law.
As for the state, it must learn some hard lessons
from this whole incident, not the least of which
is not to allow such a situation to develop again.
Why was the standoff allowed to fester for months
with not even a cordoning off of the area so that
movement of personnel and material could at least
be monitored if not stopped? Equally important,
once the wherewithal for the operation was being
put in place, some media-access restrictions on
the Lal Masjid leadership Sshould have been enforced.
Similarly, the problems for locals of the area should
have been anticipated and dealt with in an effective
contingency plan. That these ordinary Pakistanis
suffered with infinite patience is a testimony to
their national commitment.
As time lapsed, while efforts to remove the hostages
failed, the terrorists got sufficient time to lay
their traps and plan their operations. Perhaps formal
negotiations, which had begun a day before the operations
commenced could have been put in place earlier.
Perhaps the most important aspect was the need to
have absolutely correct intelligence of the actual
lay of the land inside.
Finally, despite the skeptics who felt, and may
still do, that this whole incident was timed for
political exploitation, there was a need to deal
firmly with this challenge to the writ of the state.
Whatever the political divides within the state,
extremism and such violent challenges to the writ
of the state cannot be tolerated. Equally, as has
become evident, a state that accommodates criminals
and lawbreakers within its official structures will
find the nation unconvinced when it deals with large-scale
challenges to its writ. If the nation is to unite
in upholding the writ of its state, then the state
must maintain a credible transparency and responsiveness
towards civil society. No government should exploit
such a tragedy politically.
This is a time for introspection and sober reflection
for both state and civil society – especially
for the religious leadership – as we face
the fallout of this incident. The suffering of the
innocent children of Lal Masjid should lead us to
reassert the Quaid's vision of Pakistan. In that
lies our only salvation as a nation
(The writer is director general of the Institute
of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Courtesy The News)