For several months, clerics from the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad have sent their followers into the moderate Pakistani capital to enforce Islamic law, or Shariah, in open defiance of Pakistan's government. Beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf had been overly tepid, refusing to confront the followers of the Taliban-style movement as they harassed store owners and kidnapped women, including six Chinese nationals, accusing them of prostitution. The rise of the movement is seen as evidence that the extremist views more common in Pakistan's tribal areas are spreading to its more moderate cities. The Red Mosque had become a source of domestic embarrassment and a political liability long before a Pakistani Army Ranger was killed outside the mosque and Gen. Musharraf finally ordered his security forces to lay siege to the compound.
This week's decision by Gen. Musharraf's is welcome and overdue. That the general refrained from addressing the problem head-on is not surprising; he faces a parlous domestic situation that was made worse earlier this year after his maladroit ousting of the head of Pakistan's Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Gen. Musharraf overstepped his authority in demanding that Mr. Chaudhry resign, and the episode set off a violent series of demonstrations met by counter-demonstrations, hamstringing the Musharraf government. A cynical view, which has found its way into a few commentaries, is that in the face of such dissent, Gen. Musharraf allowed the problem of Islamic radicalism to fester in order to deflect attention from his other problems.
There was also mounting international pressure, particularly from Pakistan's "all-weather" friend, China. The kidnapping of Chinese nationals in Islamabad last month was deeply embarrassing for the Musharraf government. "We know that the Chinese sent a very strong message that they could take losses in Baluchistan or the tribal belt but were not prepared to see their citizens abducted and tortured bang in the heart of the capital," a senior diplomat in Islamabad told the BBC.
The government has pursued a wise and well-received strategy of laying siege to the mosque and demanding unconditional surrender. Understanding that a military raid of a mosque — even one that espouses radical teachings that most Pakistanis reject — carries the potential of creating more problems, especially with women and children still inside, Gen. Musharraf refrained from ordering an all-out raid. Instead, security forces cordoned off the area so that the more hardline radicals still inside the mosque can't escape, even though one leading cleric tried to slip out dressed as a woman.
With all services to the building cut, the expectation is that the students will surrender. If not, Gen. Musharraf's government is prepared to take action. It needs to be; to back off now would been seen by other extremists as a kind of leniency, and Gen. Musharraf has already shown too much of that.