After Red Mosque, Pak faces Taliban

Zofeen Ebrahim:

Pro-Taliban rebels operating close to the Afghan border have, through a series of suicide bomber attacks on security forces over the weekend causing some 80 deaths, signalled the end of a peace deal with the government and determination to avenge the July 10-11 army raid on the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad. Anticipating a backlash in the restive North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the military government of President Musharraf rushed in troops, soon after seizing control over the Lal Masjid complex. But pro-Taliban groups, already negotiating troop withdrawal in the area, were angered and responded by unleashing suicide bombers on convoys and security installations.

“The peace agreement has been terminated,” said local military commander Abdullah Farhad to reporters in Peshawar, capital of the NWFP and the main gateway to Afghanistan. Government officials confirmed that on Sunday at least 44 people were killed in suicide bomber attacks. An army convoy was hit as it moved through Swat district, killing 18, while an attack on a police recruitment centre carried out by a human bomb resulted in 26 deaths. On Saturday, at least 26 soldiers were killed in a suicide car bombing in north Waziristan. Pamphlets circulated by the Taliban in Miranshah town announced the end of the 10-month-old peace pact. “We had signed the agreement for the safety and protection of the lives and property of our people,” the statement said. “But the government forces continued to launch attacks on the Taliban.”

Under the Sep. 5, 2006 pact the Pakistan army, which had been battling with the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements, as part of an understanding with the US army in Afghanistan, was pulled back. In return, the militants agreed to halt cross-border attacks on the US and NATO troops that are backing the government of President Hamid Karzai. But neither side was satisfied with the implementation of the deal and negotiations were underway for the army to withdraw from 25 of its checkpoints even as the Lal Masjid was stormed.

“He (Musharraf) has set the tone for the future and if the stance can be sustained then there is some future for us in this fight against terror,” Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based political and defence analyst, said.

Of concern to the government is the bad publicity arising from the large number of deaths, including those of women and children that occurred during the raid. “There will be a reaction on government’s attempt to hide the casualty figures when missing persons’ list would sharply increase,” predicts defence analyst Zaid Hamid, founding consultant of Brass Tacks — an Islamabad-based think tank. “There was no cause for the state to understate the numbers,” said Sehgal. “The kind of offensive it led, there had to be casualties and people would have accepted it. According to reports garnered from very reliable sources, 104 people were killed.”

Hamid believes that Musharraf acted in haste and under pressure from Washington. “I think there was US pressure to mop up the operation as they felt that politicians might have a soft corner for these militants. Bloodshed in election year is never a good idea. Ideally, they should have held the siege and increased pressure as they were doing so. But their nerves snapped.” — IPS