One year after the Pakistani army stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad in Operation Silence, Islamist extremism has strengthened and the authorities are struggling to contain it. On Sunday 19 people were killed in a suicide attack on a rally commemorating the storming of the siege. On Wednesday and Thursday hundreds burqa-clad women demonstrated in front of the compound, demanding that the destroyed madrassa be reconstructed.
Pakistani troops besieged and stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007
Nicknamed “Operation Silence” the storming of the Red Mosque by Pakistani troops last year began after last-minute negotiations failed.
Lasting longer than expected, Operation Silence finally came to an end after two days. The troops met with resistance from thousands of Koran students and heavily-armed extremists inside the mosque and the adjoining Jamia Hafsa madrassa, a religious school for women.
Pakistani General Waheed Arshad said during the operation: “It is not a conventional war which is taking place here. It’s a huge complex and militants have taken position in almost every room. There is stiff resistance because there are trained people; the terrorists there have heavy weapons so one needs to be very careful in the execution.”
At least 100 deaths
At the end of the operation, Islamabad said 100 militants and students had died. But the Pakistani media estimated the number of dead was much higher. It is still very unclear what the true figures are.
The most high-profile death was that of the mosque leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi who had told reporters he was ready to be a martyr: “It’s a crime -- naked aggression. They want to break me but God will avenge me. After my death, the people will topple the government.”
Many Pakistanis think that a compromise with the Koran students would have been possible and that President Musharraf and the army should have avoided the bloodbath. They think the bloody operation created sympathy for Ghazi and his radical stance among conservative Muslims.
One man said at the time that the “Red Mosque operation is not ended and the killing of these people is actually a beginning because the Pakistani government has made him a hero now.”
Avenging the martyrs’ deaths
Islamist extremists immediately vowed they would take revenge and the Pakistani Taliban declared war on Musharraf and the government. Suicide attacks increased all over the country -- not only in the restive tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.
The extremists gained in strength and the state was increasingly unstable. This was partly responsible for the defeat of Musharraf’s allies in the February elections.
Many of the Pashtun tribal areas near the Afghan border are now controlled by extremists. The Taliban are openly to be seen in the provincial capital Peshawar. They are known to regularly cross the border into Afghanistan to fight the government and the international forces.
Frustration about insecurity
General David McKiernan, the current Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, is very concerned: “The sustainability of the insurgency comes from across the border in the tribal areas in Pakistan. When I say sustainability, I mean their ability to resupply, their ability to transit fighters, their command of control. Our mandate does end at the border. To be quite candid with you yes there is frustration about the insecurity in the tribal areas in northern Pakistan.”
The Pakistani government doesn’t have a coherent plan for combating the Talibanisation of the border region. Alternately, it has tried peace talks, which have invariably failed, and hard military offensives, which have embittered many Pashtuns but have not weakened the extremists.On Friday, the authorities signed a peace deal with Islamist militants after these promised to dismantle training camps and not to threaten Peshwar. But some observers are sceptical about such peace deals -- especially in the West and in Afghanistan.