A bloody standoff this week between Pakistan's military and Islamic militants holed up in a mosque in the heart of Islamabad has prompted calls for a wider crackdown on militants in Pakistan.
Nearly two days of fighting ended on Tuesday with the death of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, one of the militant clerics in Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) and more than 50 of his supporters. The militants had purportedly used women and children as human shields, however, there has been no word on whether they were among the dead.
Applauding the operation, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper noted, "There is no room for complacency, and the government must relentlessly pursue terrorist and criminals masquerading as 'soldiers of Islam.'"
Stephen Cohen at the Brookings Institution thinks Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has come under increased criticism in Washington for not delivering enough in the U.S.-led war on terror, could use this opportunity to impose martial law and "mop up the bad guys."
Polls in Pakistan found that a large number of Pakistanis supported military action against the militants in Lal Masjid. Analysts say this support should strengthen Gen. Musharraf's position.
But the Musharraf administration has also come under fire for not acting sooner against the militants who for months had taken over the mosque barely a mile from Pakistan's parliament building.
Pakistan's News newspaper said plenty of questions will be asked once the dust settles, including, "Why were the Lal Masjid elements allowed so much leeway that the complex became almost like a state within a state, complete with a moral policing force which acted with impunity enforcing a rigid interpretation of Islam on the city's residents?"
The abduction last month of Chinese nationals by militants in the mosque elicited a strong reaction from China, a close ally of Pakistan, and spurred Gen. Musharraf to act decisively.
Mark Schneider with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says the situation at Lal Masjid was in part a consequence of Pakistani policy. "The mosque is state-run, state-funded. These extremist madrassas are getting government money," he said.
Both the Bush administration and members of Congress have been urging Gen. Musharraf to crack down on these madrassas, which are widely thought to be a source of Islamic militants. Pakistan has received billions of dollars from Washington since it signed up as an ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, but many in Congress now want to know what the U.S. is getting in return.
"The Bush administration is unlikely to change its policy, but there has been a change in mood in Congress," said Mr. Schneider. "It's not just Democrats, but Republicans as well who are concerned Pakistan is not doing enough." There is legislation working its way through Congress that seeks to impose conditions on military assistance to Pakistan.
Frederic Grare with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says that of approximately $10 billion in assistance given to Pakistan since September 11, 2001, only $900 million has gone to development—the bulk being channeled to the Pakistani military.
Michael Krepon with the Henry L. Stimson Center describes Lal Masjid as the tip of the iceberg of Islamic extremism in Pakistan. "Problems have grown during previous governments, and they have accelerated under Musharraf," he said, adding, "The lessons that the army leadership take way from this sorry episode will be crucial. Passivity in the face of religious extremism compounds dangers."
Gen. Musharraf's reluctance to act sooner has been attributed to his concern not to alienate his Islamist supporters. "The Islamists will be angry, but he'll gain support from the 'moderate' middle classes, except that he'll be accused of doing this on behalf of the U.S.," said Mr. Cohen of the Brookings Institution. "If he wants to increase his influence, he should take on other extremist organizations, as he's promised to do time and time again; I would not hold my breath, unless he has a revelation."
A hard-hitting paper released on Tuesday by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests Pakistan's military is complicit in fomenting terrorism in Kashmir, the resurgence of the Taliban and the growth of jihadi extremism and capabilities.
Mr. Grare, the author of the report, blames current Western policies for reinforcing Pakistan's political weakness and contributing to regional instability by allowing Pakistan to trade democratization for its cooperation on terrorism.
He contends Pakistan's army has inflated the threat of religious sectarianism and jihadi extremism outside its borders, particularly in Afghanistan and Kashmir, for its own self-interest. "Faced with this seeming instability and a perceived lack of alternatives, the West adopted a more lenient attitude toward Pakistan's military regime as a moderate stalwart against Islamic extremism," he said.
Echoing this criticism of Western support for Gen. Musharraf's regime, Mr. Schneider said being in an alliance with a repressive regime has hurt the United States' credibility with average Pakistanis.
In a word of advice to Washington, Mr. Grare said it should cease its campaign against political Islam in Pakistan. "It has proven counterproductive and made U.S. policy dependent on Pakistan's military, which claims to be the strongest rampart against religious extremism," the report says.
The report was released on a day President Bush reaffirmed his support for Gen. Musharraf. Speaking in Cleveland, Mr. Bush called the general "a strong ally" in the war against extremists. "I like him and I appreciate him," Mr. Bush said, adding he was also "constantly working with him to make sure that democracy continues to advance in Pakistan."