Americocentrism dies hard.
So it’s difficult for us to appreciate that the things we care about—like the global war on terror —may not be the most important factors in Pakistani affairs.
Pakistan’s alliance with China, which supports Islamabad’s confrontation with India and underpins its hopes for economic growth in its populous heartland, is probably a lot more important to Islamabad than the dangerous, destabilizing, and thankless task of pursuing Islamic extremists on its remote and impoverished frontiers at Washington’s behest.
I think the professionals in the Bush administration understand the strategic dynamic of China moving toward the center of Asian affairs even as our disliked and counterproductive policies push us to the margins.
So I would not be surprised if Washington’s muted official response to date on the constitutional crisis in Pakistan is attributable to acquiesence to China’s insistence that Washington not add to the difficulties of its loyal ally, Musharraf.
Officially, therefore, we're not doing anything for now.
Unofficially may be another matter.
Encouragement of a coup by Musharraf's Number 2, General Ishfaq Pervaiz Kiyani is coming from somewhere, including the time-honored technique--at least familiar to readers of Chinese historical fiction--of trying to force his hand by announcing he had executed the coup even before it happened.
Even as Benazir Bhutto gauchely auditions for the role of America’s client, announces her confidence in Kiyani, and promises to divert Pakistani military energy and lives away from the heartland--and the Indian border—the wastes of Waziristan, I wonder how well she’ll fare in a country where Osama bin Laden is more popular than George W. Bush, India is despised and the Taliban is honored, China is a core strategic and economic partner—and the United States and its concerns are unpopular and on the periphery.
For good reason, China is never far from the mind of Musharraf and Pakistan’s military elite.
China’s presence and interests in Pakistan dwarf America’s.
Beijing and Islamabad’s strategic priorities—countering India and nurturing economic development before confronting extremists in the hinterland—are in perfect sync.
The two nations grew even closer when the Bush administration abandoned the Pakistan-centric order of battle of the Global War on Terror and opted for closer ties with India in the service of what looks like a different strategic objective—an attempt to counter China’s growing influence in South Asia.
So, it would be rather ironic if the road to President Musharraf’s downfall began at a Chinese massage parlor in Islamabad.
It was, after all, the provocative kidnapping of 7 PRC nationals that compelled Musharraf—reportedly under heavy Chinese pressure—to abandon a policy of appeasement and compromise with Islamic militants at the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad and, in July of this year, launch a bloody assault that revealed the extent of the security crisis at the heart of the Pakistani military regime and displayed to the U.S. Musharraf’s—and Pakistan’s--wholehearted reliance on China.
In the speech announcing the state of emergency, Musharraf broke into English to tell us what he hoped we wanted to hear, evoking Lincoln as he tried to justify his move to the United States, the EU, and the Commonwealth as a response to judicial activism.
On the other hand, in his remarks in Urdu directed to the local audience as translated by Barnett Rubin , Musharraf cited the Lal Masjid mosque crisis--not the pursuit of al Qaeda and its allies in the border regions--as the primary instance of terrorism and extremism afflicting Pakistan.
And when he commiserated with the victims of terrorism, he took the opportunity to give a heartfelt shout-out to the Chinese, not to the United States:
Now. We saw the event of Lal Masjid in Islamabad where extremists took law into their own hands. In the heart of Pakistan - capital city - and to the great embarrassment of the nation around the world... These people - what didn't they do? - these extremists. They martyred police. They took police hostage. They burned shops. The Chinese, who are such great friends of ours - they took the Chinese hostage and tortured them. Because of this, I was personally embarrassed. I had to go apologize to the Chinese leaders, "I am ashamed that you are such great friends and this happened to you".
Now, about the standoff at the mosque.
One could describe it as Pakistan’s Waco—if Waco had taken place in the heart of Washington, D.C.
It didn’t get the attention it deserved. As the Times of India dryly observed of the attack that claimed at least 100 and perhaps 1000 lives:
...the week-long stand-off that ended in a massacre on Tuesday attracted little attention in the US, where focus is more on the debate over a pullout from Iraq. In fact, a news channel on Tuesday cut into a story on Lal Masjid to bring breaking news of a small airplane crash in Florida.
Lal Masjid was controlled by militant clerics who not only proclaimed their interpretation of sharia law—they enforced it.
An otherwise sympathetic observer declared:
One cannot have any objection to the Lal Masjid just preaching implementation of Sharia in Pakistan. So many organizations are doing so, one more cannot be objected to. The right of any Muslim to preach adoption of Sharia is one thing but to take the powers of implementing his own version of Sharia is another, and the latter is a function of the State.
Lal Masjid stands in revolt when it establishes its own Sharia courts, it passes judgments, and imprisons Pakistanis and foreigners.
Musharraf’s administration had its hands full with the militant, confrontational, and well-connected (to the intelligence services) cleric who ran the mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz.
The difficulties involved can be seen from this excerpt from a timeline of the mosque crisis compiled by B. Raman, an Indian China-watcher who is assiduous in washing Pakistan’s dirty linen on the site Intellibriefs:
January 22, 2007: Female students of the Jamia Hafsa madrasa attached to the Lal Masjid in Islamabad occupied a Children’s Library adjacent to their madrasa to protest against the demolition of seven unauthorised mosques constructed on roads in Islamabad by which President Pervez Musharraf often travels. The mosques were demolished on the advice of his personal security staff.
February 13, 2007: The authorities agreed to rebuild one of the demolished mosques to end the library standoff, but the students refused to vacate the library.
March 27, 2007: The female students, along with their male colleagues from the Jamia Faridia, another madrasa attached to the mosque, raided a house near the mosque and kidnapped a woman, her daughter-in-law and her six-month-old granddaughter for allegedly running a brothel. They were released after they “repented”.
March 28, 2007: Some students of the two madrasas took three policemen hostage in retaliation for the arrest of some students by the police. The hostages were released on March 29.
March 30, 2007: Some madrasa students visited CD and video shops in the capital and warned the shop owners that they should either switch to another business or face the “consequences”.
April 6, 2007: The Lal Masjid set up its own Sharia court. The mosque’s chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, warned of “thousands of suicide attacks” if the Government tried to shut it down.
April 9, 2007: The Sharia court issued a fatwa condemning the then Tourism Minister Nilofar Bakhtiar after newspapers pictured her hugging her parachuting instructor in France.
You get the picture. Escalating confrontation, with the government conciliating, accommodating, and backing down.
After exposing the skydiving outrage, the students of Lal Masjid turned their attention to another font of impurity—a Chinese-run massage parlor in Islamabad.
The epic was reported in great detail in Pakistan Today:
First, the abduction:
Male and female students of Jamia Faridia, Jamia Hafsa and Beaconhouse School System, in a joint operation, kidnapped the Chinese women and Pakistani men shortly after midnight Friday from a Chinese massage centre, working at House No 17, Street 4, F-8/3, alleging that they were running a brothel. ...
Riding in three vehicles, the students ... raided the massage centre located in the posh Islamabad sector. They overpowered three Pakistani males and guards posted there after thrashing them.
They, later, entered the building and ordered those present there to accompany them. On refusal, the students thrashed them and forcibly took them to the Jamia Hafsa compound. They accused the abducted people of rendering un-Islamic and unlawful services.
Ghazi [of Lal Masjid] said the China massage centre was involved in sex trade and complaints were being received about it since long. "Even housewives used to tell us by phone that the centre charges Rs 1,000 for massage while by paying Rs 500, something else was also available," he said.
Then the anxious confab with the Chinese:
President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz were earlier given minute-by-minute reports of the negotiations regarding the release of the hostages. ... The prime minister was in contact with the Islamabad administration and the Interior Ministry and getting minute-by-minute reports from State Minister for Interior Zafar Warriach.
The Chinese ambassador contacted President Hu Jintao two times during the 15-hour hostage drama, sources said. The ambassador called his president while holding talks with Pakistan Muslim League chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain at his residence.
... Sources quoted President Hu Jintao, expressing shock over the kidnapping of the Chinese nationals, has called for security for them. The ambassador informed his president about his talks with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. The PML leader also got telephonic contact established between the hostages and the ambassador.
The ignominious conclusion:
The release came only after Deputy Commissioner Chaudhry Muhammad Ali and Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Zafar Iqbal, who held talks with the Lal Masjid administration, beseeched it for five hours and even touched the knees of some leading clerics while begging for the freedom of the abductees.
Finally, the tellingly sleazy detail:
The administration quietly let two "big shots", Pakistani customers, go and released their vehicles, seized from outside the massage centre... The identity of these clients is not being disclosed.
Beyond President Hu Jintao’s tender regard for the security and livelihood of Chinese masseuses, there was obviously a larger issue at stake. China did not want to see its citizens and interests to become pawns in Pakistan’s internal strife.
It's a non-trivial point for China, which lacks the military reach to effectively protect its overseas citizens itself, but does not want to see them turned into the bargaining chip of first resort for dissidents in dangerous lands like Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria, and etc. who are looking to get some leverage on the local government--or Beijing.
It looks like China demanded that Pakistan draw a red line at the abduction, extortion, and murder of its citizens.
A week after the kidnapping incident, Pakistan’s Federal Interior Minister was in Beijing.
Once more from the Intellibriefs timeline:
June 29, 2007: The "Daily Times" of Lahore wrote in an editorial as follows: "During his visit to Beijing, Sherpao got an earful from the Chinese Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang, who asked Pakistan for the umpteenth time to protect Chinese nationals working in Pakistan. The reference was to the assault and kidnapping of Chinese citizens in Islamabad by the Lal Masjid vigilantes. The Chinese Minister called the Lal Masjid mob “terrorists” who targeted the Chinese, and asked Pakistan to punish the “criminals”.
One factor that would have intensified Chinese alarm and exasperation was a report that the attack on the massage parlor revealed a tie-up between Pakistan’s Islamic militants and Uighur separatists:
Mr.Sherpao also reported that the Chinese suspected that the raid on the massage parlour was conducted by some Uighur students studying in the Lal Masjid madrasa and that the Chinese apprehended that Uighur "terrorists" based in Pakistan might pose a threat to the security of next year's Olympics in Beijing.
In early July Musharraf apparently was able to invoke China’s anger to overcome resistance within his armed forces, and move against Lal Masjid.
Even so, he was forced to employ troops personally loyal to him, as the Weekly Standard reported:
China applied enormous pressure to Musharraf. His previous attempts to order military strikes against the Lal Masjid had met with rebuffs. In late January, after the Pakistani army refused to raid the mosque, Musharraf ordered his air force to do so--only to see this order refused as well. Musharraf's eventual solution was to send in 111 Brigade, which is personally loyal to him.
The mosque was encircled by 15,000 troops and the siege proceeded in a dilatory fashion...until three Chinese were murdered in remote Peshawar, apparently in retaliation for the siege.
China Daily reported:
Police officer Abdul Karim said that it was a robbery attempt.
But one witness said that attackers with face covered were shouting religious slogans when they opened fire on four Chinese nationals in a three-wheel auto-rickshaw factory at Khazana, a town some eight kilometers from Peshawar, the capital city of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.
The Chinese outlets splashed the story all over the media, including their embassy websites, complete with atrocity photos—a treatment that the unfortunate demise of rickshaw factory employees doesn’t usually attract.
Tarique Niazi describes the denouement:
On July 2, barely a week after the abduction, the government ordered 15,000 troops around the mosque compound to flush out the militants. On July 4, it arrested the leader of the militants, Maulana Abdul Aziz ... After apprehending the leader, government troops moved to choking off the militants’ supplies of food, water, and power. But as soon as word of the revenge killing of three Chinese on July 8 reached Islamabad, it created a “perfect storm” for Gen. Musharraf. Embarrassed and enraged, he reversed the troops’ strategy and ordered them, on July 10, to mount an all-out assault at the mosque, in which Aziz’s brother and his deputy, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, together with as many as 1,000 people, was killed.
A trusted ally demands real, meaningful, and risky action by Pakistan against terrorism. Because of the importance of the ally, the proximity of the threat to the political and economic heart of the country, and the tactical and strategic merits of the action, Pakistan responds positively.
That ally is, of course, China.
Not the United States.
And that’s probably not going to change even if Benazir Bhutto takes power.