What Pervez Musharraf must understand is that it is not just military action which will end extremism in Pakistan. The brutal use of force has proved counter-productive in Afghanistan and Iraq. A similar experiment in Pakistan will not have a different result. Society needs to return to a more normal existence and stronger democratic practices. Pakistan desperately needs to have the shackles of the army loosened, though the army is likely to have to play a significant role for the foreseeable future.

The only solution to all the problems of Pakistan including extremism is a fair political process. If the US and west continue to support General Musharraf, they will not win any "hearts and minds" in Pakistan. While a failure of policy in Iraq and Afghanistan may be affordable, such a failure in a nuclear state such as Pakistan will have different and possibly catastrophic implications.

The storming of the Islamabad’s Red Mosque, last month, and the deaths of scores of Islamic militants has placed Pakistan and its leadership on the edge of a deadly precipice.

One wrong move and the already deeply polarized country could plunge into a state of anarchic violence, bordering on civil war. It is strange to see a country with so much potential on the verge of collapse.

The operation against the Lal Masjid is significant in terms of the military’s decision to eliminate the terrorists it had created itself. It is another significant point in the nation’s history in which the army tried not only to establish the writ of the State but sent a firm message to all sorts of militants that any action against the will of the State will not be tolerated. From this perspective, this is indeed a turning point because the operation will discourage all potential extremists about the patience of the establishment which seems to have run very low.

The excitement which lasted about eight days, reminded one of another operation which had taken place in the Indian subcontinent in 1980’s. This is a reference to the Indian army’s June 1984 attack against the dissident Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the Golden Temple complex at Amritsar.

The similarity between the two cases is amazing. In both situations, the rebels were created by the establishment to be later killed at the government’s hands. While Bhindranwale was a product of the Congress regime’s policies, the Ghazi brothers in Islamabad and more of their ilk were products of the intelligence agencies which used them for years to fight covert wars. The connection between the agencies and the two brothers is possibly what explains the bunkers inside the mosque and the arsenal.

Al-Qaeda and underground Pakistani extremist groups have pledged to target President Pervez Musharraf, government ministers and the army in revenge for the commando action that brought down the Red Mosque, which had defied the state for six months.

Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao barely survived just such a suicide attack in late April. Gen Musharraf himself has been the target of several assassination plots. And since the Red Mosque wrap up some 100 soldiers have been killed by suicide bombers and in ambushes by the militants in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Indeed, not many people in Pakistan are unhappy with the government’s action. In fact, the dilemma that people face today is that the job of eliminating extremists was achieved by a military dictator rather than a democratic leader which is actually not odd. Civilian leaders have never had the power and control over the decisions to manage or eliminate extremists.

However, what continues to amaze people is the time the government took in carrying out the operation. Many believe the action should have been taken earlier. This, of course, is the perspective of the silent majority. There are others like the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amaal -- a congregation of religious parties -- who continue to be unhappy with the government action. What makes the situation worse is that these religious parties in Pakistan are fuelling an already tense situation by not openly condemning these terrorists but instead calling them martyrs.

What is even more important is that the successful operation against the Lal Masjid comes at a time when President Musharraf’s popularity was at its lowest. Operation Silence was bound to improve his popularity graph, which does not say much about the future of democracy in the country.

The people have divided between supporting Musharraf for what he has done and the issue of opposing him for things he has not done right like the sacking of the chief justice.

The dilemma facing the people now will be to support a leader who has taken decisive action against the extremists or to oppose him for thwarting the rule of law and democracy. This is certainly a difficult decision for the people.

The whole scene, in fact, has pushed the country to a square one situation which means that it has to live a few more years with a powerful military that will not be willing to leave control of the State or its governance because it has yet again proved itself to be a much more robust institution in the country.

The entire society stands at an interesting juncture when there is very little insulation between the State and society, or extremist elements and society. The government’s coercion, of course, will solve some of the problem in the short term but the continuation of military-led authoritarian rule is bound to generate greater extremism.

Now Gen Musharraf - himself a former commando - has promised to wage war against all extremist groups and to never allow a madrassa (religious school) to defy the state again. He has sent thousands of troops to Swat, a tribal territory of NWFP and to the town of Tank where Pakistani Taleban and al Qaeda are attempting to impose their version of a Sharia state.

He is faced with a stark choice - either to go for the extremists in a consistent manner as he has promised to do in the past or once again try to appease them. The latter course, many fear, would put the future of Pakistan at risk.

He is under intense pressure to spell out soon a time table for free and fair elections and his own future political role.

Since 9/11 he has been accused of double-dealing with the West, sometimes bending to pressure to curb Islamic extremism and at other times allying himself with extremists to brow beat or blackmail the governments of neighbouring countries.

Thus far, he has never attempted to break the three decades old nexus between the army and Islamic extremists. As a result al-Qaeda has found the space and support to regroup in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the Afghan Taleban have found a safe refuge in Balochistan province and Pakistani Taleban have spread their propaganda across the Pashtun belt of north-west Pakistan.

Now it seems that the army needs to understand that it cannot take on the extremists unless it is prepared to have a credible parliament and civilian government to work with.

If Gen Musharraf takes the first choice he will need to first garner political support and a new political mandate by allowing secular national parties such as Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and smaller regional parties back into the political arena. These are parties that have accused him of treating them with contempt since he seized power in a coup in 1999.

But striking a deal with Ms Bhutto and others would mean that the army would have to hold a genuinely free and fair election by the end of the year, allow the independence of the judiciary and media and share power with the politicians - something President Musharraf has been loathe to do.

If he takes the second path it would mean striking more controversial and fragile peace deals with the Pakistani Taleban, the extremists and militant madrassas. This would involve allowing a weakening of the state’s authority and credibility.

In reality Pakistan has an alternative in people power. But Musharraf is keeping the shutters closed on secular political parties by the barrel of the gun, incarcerations, self-serving ordinances, etc. He has used the Red Mosque siege as a trump card to distract the present civil movement for democracy. He has told the West: "It is either me in my khaki uniform or the radical mullahs".

Whatever choice he makes, Gen Musharraf knows he will still be targeted by the extremists.





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