May 20, 2007

Geopolitical Diary: Standoff at the Red Mosque

Source: Stratfor

May 21, 2007 02 10 GMT

Pakistani authorities on Sunday apparently delayed an operation to wrest control of Islamabad's Red Mosque and two associated seminaries from rogue mullahs and their followers. Earlier in the day, police and paramilitary forces -- at least 10,000 strong -- entered the Pakistani capital; the militant clerics and students, who have threatened "jihad" if the government should use force against them, hunkered down for an expected battle, blocking traffic on two roads adjacent to the mosque complex and taking up positions on the periphery of the facility and rooftops. Traffic in the city was rerouted, shops were shut down, and hospitals were placed on standby status.

Despite the mobilization, authorities have played down the idea of an operation. Such assurances notwithstanding, the belligerence of the mullahs is such that an operation will likely take place sooner or later. In fact, both the information minister and interior minister told the media that the government has spared no efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with the mullahs, but now has been forced to adopt a tougher line. Both ministers said the government can no longer tolerate the behavior of the renegade clerics.

This weekend's flare-up comes after students from the seminary associated with the Red Mosque kidnapped four policemen May 18, then demanded a prisoner exchange for eleven of their associates who were in the custody of the authorities. On Saturday, the militants released two of the policemen, and authorities released two students on Sunday. These conciliatory gestures aside, there appears to be a growing consensus within the government that the regime has no choice but to put its foot down and deal harshly with the mullahs.

However, this standoff has been going on since February -- so why opt for an iron-hand approach now? The answer has to do with the much larger political and legal crisis -- stemming from the March 9 suspension of Pakistani Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry -- which is growing with the passage of time. By moving to resolve the standoff with the militant mullahs in Islamabad, the government could divert attention from the legal crisis, giving itself a breather. Moreover, the government is hoping the move will go over well with the public, because there is broad public support for cracking down against Talibanizing forces.

Clearly, the present standoff presents the Musharraf regime with a potential opportunity to take some of the steam out of a growing anti-government movement. At the same time, there is the challenge of containing the potential fallout -- many people, both male and female, could die if security forces should try to dislodge the militant mullahs and their students -- especially because the latter have vowed to resist any attempted use of force. Besides which, an assault on a place of worship, carried live on television, could stir up a backlash from the public, further exacerbating the already turbulent situation of public unrest. But at a time when all of its options for handling political instability are bad, the Musharraf regime is likely to opt for the one it considers the least bad: rolling the dice and dealing with the mullahs.

The government is hoping that mainstream political forces will refrain from exploiting the situation for fear of empowering Islamists. However, as shown by the events in Karachi on May 12 -- when more than 40 people were killed in clashes between government and opposition activists -- there is no such thing as managed chaos.

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