Pakistan has seen a surge in violence since government forces stormed Islamabad’s Lal Masjid – or Red Mosque – compound last week, ending an 8-day siege and killing 75 supporters of hard-line clerics. A series of daily bomb attacks has killed more than 200 people in the past week.
Benjamin Sand, VOA correspondent in Islamabad, says the government of President Pervez Musharraf seems more precarious now than at any point since he seized power in a bloodless coup nearly 8 years ago.
Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA New Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Sand says religious extremists are enraged over the government’s recent raid in Islamabad and over General Musharraf’s support of Washington’s war on terror. Moderate forces, on the other hand, are upset about his decision to suspend the country’s chief justice, which was seen as an unprecedented attack on the legal community. However, on Friday the Supreme Court reinstated Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry. Mr. Sand calls this a “make-or-break period” for President Musharraf, and it is “not at all clear” whether he will survive politically.
Benjamin Sand says that many analysts had predicted there would be a backlash after the storming of the Red Mosque. He notes that the Pakistani military has had ties to religious extremist elements since the war in Afghanistan during the 1980’s. And he thinks it is difficult to determine whether this signals the beginning of the end of the so-called “military-mullah alliance” in Pakistan.
But Anwar Iqbal, Washington correspondent for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, says he thinks the alliance between the military and the religious establishment is beginning to break down. And Chidanand Rajghatta, Washington bureau chief and foreign editor of The Times of India, says he believes the Pakistani military has been forced to crack down on “what was essentially its own creation,” and the storming of the Red Mosque represents a “bloody manifestation of that rift.”
Last weekend Islamic militants in North Waziristan, the tribal region bordering Afghanistan, declared war on the government and called off last year’s peace deal with Islamabad. Benjamin Sand notes that the deal that President Musharraf signed with the tribal leaders 10 months ago has always been “extremely controversial.” U.S. officials say that it has allowed pro-Taliban forces to establish “safe haven” throughout much of the tribal area from which to launch guerrilla attacks into Afghanistan. However, the Pakistani government counters that it is only way to secure the area.
This latest controversy over security in the tribal regions comes amidst the release earlier this week of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which says al-Qaida is utilizing new training camps along the Afghan-Pakistani border and stepping up efforts to get its operatives into the United States to carry out attacks, perhaps on the scale of 9/11. But Pakistan has rejected the report as “unsubstantiated.” Benjamin Sand says that – if true – the report is extremely “damaging” to President Musharraf. For years he survived “in large part because his U.S. benefactors believed he was better than anybody else” in combating terrorism, Mr. Sand says.
Benjamin Sand suggests that the “only credible” politicians who could replace the Pakistani president are two former prime ministers who have fairly “controversial records” of their own. For example, Benazir Bhutto, the exiled leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, is one of General Musharraf’s most outspoken critics, although last week she endorsed the government raid against the Red Mosque. According to Pakistani journalist Anwar Iqbal, she is in negotiations with President Musharraf about a “power-sharing arrangement.” He has said that he will not declare a state of emergency in response to the violence, and he intends to go ahead with elections due later this year.
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