An Inevitable End
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and foreign militants who had been gathering at the Lal Masjid over the last few months when the state had effectively withdrawn its writ from this area and allowed total freedom of movement to and from the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa – raising some critical questions relating to the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 these people.
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)


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