The bloody end to the week-long siege at the Red Mosque in Islamabad yesterday needs to be followed by policies of skill and statesmanship if Pakistan is to be rescued from its inexorable slide into chaos.
Thirty years after the coup by General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq that set Pakistan on an Islamist course under military tutelage, General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president and army chief, must decide where he is leading his country.
His tactical ambiguity, co-opting Islamists while appeasing his American allies, has merely encouraged jihadism while alienating Washington. When he acts decisively, as he did yesterday, or when he periodically kills or hands over al-Qaeda operatives based in Pakistan, he nevertheless gives the impression his only goal is to stay in power.
A leader more preoccupied with the future of his country would have dealt with the occupation of the mosque complex when it started in January and the jihadis brought their challenge to the Pakistani state to the capital. The message would have been clear – and the casualties, almost certainly, fewer.
Instead, by clinging to power, Gen Musharraf has made terrible trade-offs. He has bought off some generals with sinecures, others by letting them support the Taliban in Afghanistan and jihad in Kashmir.
This has given jihadism the run of the country, while his marginalisation of Pakistan’s mainstream parties has pumped up indigenous Islamist movements. Pakistan, it is often said, is being Talibanised. In fact, the spread and swagger of the religious right in Pakistan is a far greater strategic threat than the resurgence of the Taliban next door.
Yet, the Red Mosque episode could furnish the general – and Pakistan – with an opportunity.
First, he should end his attempt to hobble the judiciary and reinstate the chief justice he sacked in March. That will only be possible if he chooses to relinquish either his role as army chief or as president; the dual role is corroding Pakistan’s institutions and is untenable.
Second, he should open up the political process to the mainstream parties led by exiled former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. They were failures, but Pakistan needs their parties to function as a democratic bloc against Islamist extremism.
Third, the government must get a grip on the madrassa and target the social inequity that feeds so many young Pakistanis into these incubators of fanatics.
Gen Musharraf will, in any case, face a violent backlash from the jihadis. He needs to gather new forces in order to defeat them.
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