- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007


Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s beleaguered president, should be credited for the way his government handled the extremist siege at Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque. Gen. Musharraf made clear than nothing short of unconditional surrender would be accepted. When it became clear that negotiations with the mosque’s hardline extremist clerics, who had sought to impose Taliban-style rule in moderate Islamabad, were futile, Pakistan’s security forces raided the mosque. The operation was not as swift as perhaps hoped, but it was successful nonetheless.

The mosque had acted in open defiance of the government for six months; Gen. Musharraf’s decision to act was long overdue. Whether the raid signals a new willingness to take tough action against extremists, or whether it is an isolated response to particular circumstances, is unclear. That decision may not be entirely Gen. Musharraf’s to make, however.

After the raid, top al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahri issued a call to arms, exhorting his radical followers to seek revenge against Gen. Musharraf’s government. The bloody raid angered other religious extremists. Pakistan has seen the more radical ideology once limited to its frontier provinces, slowly swelling in places like Islamabad.

For Gen. Musharraf, other serious problems still exist. The success of the Red Mosque raid aside, the president finds himself in a tenuous position. The mishandled dismissal of the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, caused protests and counterprotests that turned violent. Gen. Musharraf faces an election this year, and he is constitutionally obligated to surrender his military rank if he wants to return to the presidency. Suggestions that Gen. Musharraf plans to rig the coming election have been spread by his political opponents, including those from exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s moderate Pakistan People’s Party. Talks of a deal between Miss Bhutto and Gen. Musharraf have circulated, but nothing official has been said. Such a deal may pay dividends for both leaders — and for Pakistan. Some observers believe that Gen. Musharraf faces a choice between striking a deal with Miss Bhutto in order to court the moderate vote, or tending more toward the authoritarian and fixing the election, like he did in both 2002 and 2005.

Washington has stressed the need for a “free and fair” election in Pakistan, and with good reason. Gen. Musharraf, who seized power in 1999 in a coup, lacks a legitimate mandate. Continued U.S. emphasis on this point may make it more difficult for Gen. Musharraf to fix voting roles or otherwise corrupt the election. Meanwhile, Washington should applaud and encourage the tougher stand against extremism that Pakistan showed in the Red Mosque siege.

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