Operation Silence: Are Musharraf's days numbered?

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Sumit Ganguly | 14 Jul 2020

Yet again, this time in the bloody aftermath of a military siege and attack on the prominent Red Mosque in the capital city of Islamabad, General Musharraf has reiterated his commitment to stamp out Islamic fundamentalism and extremism within Pakistan. Significant segments of Pakistan's populace, the country's neighbors (most notably India) and key players in the global community (especially the United States) will watch his subsequent actions with care and interest.

There is little question that in the past several months Islamic zealots ranging from the remnants of the Taliban and elements of al Qaeda sympathisers have undergone a resurgence within Pakistan. In part, they had succeeded in so doing thanks to the truce that the Pakistani military had reached last September in North Waziristan near the Afghan border.

This deal, which had come under some external as well as domestic criticism, had emboldened the various militant groups operating within Pakistan. Subsequent to the deal, President Karzai of Afghanistan had severely criticized Pakistan for failing to stop attacks on Afghan soil emanating from Pakistan's tribal areas.

However, faced with declining domestic popularity and unwilling to forthrightly crush many of these shadowy organisations which the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI-D) had once helped spawn and run, General Musharraf and his cohort simply chose to dismiss Karzai's complaints. Yet as matters worsened, the normally reticent Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, exerted some public pressure on General Musharraf in an unannounced visit to Pakistan in February of this year.

Quite predictably Musharraf reiterated his commitment to eradicating Pakistan of terrorist elements. However, shortly thereafter he became embroiled in a public controversy of his own making as he sought to dismiss the Chief Justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court on rather tenuous grounds. The groundswell of internal opposition to his latest act of chicanery even caught his most ardent critics by surprise. Additionally, the Bush administration, which had long turned a Nelson's eye to his domestic arrangements, felt compelled to resort to some anodyne criticism of his high-handed actions.

Confronting growing domestic dissatisfaction from a range of quarters and sensitive to the rumblings of discontent in Washington. DC, it is not unreasonable to assume that he felt the need to demonstrate his toughness in dealing with recalcitrant Islamic radicals. When the denizens of the Red Mosque brazenly challenged his writ in Islamabad kidnapping Chinese massage parlour workers and threatening the closure of putatively un-Islamic entities, he chose to bring his hammer down on the members of the errant mosque.

Given the militarised state of Pakistan's society and polity, it is hard if not impossible, to believe that the acolytes in the mosque and especially their radical clerical leadership, could not have operated with impunity without the tacit connivance of the military and intelligence establishments. In all likelihood, the militants who had holed up in the Red Mosque had, no doubt, long enjoyed the blessings of the state's security apparatus. Otherwise they would not have succeeded in turning the mosque and its adjoining buildings in a virtual fortress replete with an arsenal of deadly weaponry given the establishment's physical proximity to the headquarters of Pakistan's dreaded, Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

In the wake of "Operation Silence", the assault on the mosque, Musharraf may have alienated significant segments of the very constituencies that he and the ISI-D had once cultivated and had subsequently tolerated. They will, for a certainty, seek to exact a price for his eventual decision to confront them on their own turf. Already a number of apparently retaliatory suicide bombings have wracked remote parts of Pakistan. It is an open question as to whether or not other, more violent actions will also ensue.

His actions, ironically, have not simply inflamed the passions of Islamic radicals. Some of his secular domestic critics have now turned on him for having allowed the radicals free rein in the first place, They have also expressed dismay at the harsh tactics that the military resorted to in finally bringing them to heel. Of course, his secular critics have little in common with Islamic zealots.

Nevertheless, an odd confluence of disenchanted groups rallied together to bring down another authoritarian minion of the United States, namely, the Shah of Iran. The levels of discontent within Pakistan may not yet approximate the unhappiness of Iranians with the Shah's repressive regime. Nor for that matter has the Pakistani Army shown any obvious signs of dissent in the aftermath of this latest crackdown. Nevertheless, one wonders if this belated attempt on Musharraf's part to stem the tides of Islamic militancy in Pakistan may finally portend the end of his regime.

Sumit Ganguly is a Professor of Political Science and Director of Research of the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington. 

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