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At Least 50 Dead in Pakistan as Mosque Standoff Nears Close

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Veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid joins us from Lahore for analysis on the mosque standoff in Islamabad. The crisis appears to be nearing a close following a deadly raid by Pakistani troops that killed at least 50 people. Critics say the bloodshed could have been avoided with more time. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Pakistan the standoff at Islamabad’s Red Mosque appears to be nearing a close following a deadly raid by Pakistani troops that killed at least 50 people. The numbers could be far higher. The rebel cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi was among the dead. Fighting continued earlier today but Pakistani troops are said to be in control of most of the compound. The Pakistan government says it stormed the mosque after talks to end the week-long crisis broke down. Critics say the bloodshed could have been avoided with more time.

The Bush administration has come out in support of the raid. The U.S. State Department praised Pakistan’s “responsible” decision to storm the mosque, saying the militants had ample time to surrender, while President George W. Bush hailed Musharraf as a strong ally.

The Pakistani army says it now controls 95 percent of the complex. Security forces began a full-scale siege of the mosque last Tuesday, not long after mosque students abducted seven Chinese workers they accused of running a brothel. The Pakistani government had said it wanted to detain a number of people on a wanted list, also a number of foreigners whom it said were inside. Talks reportedly broke down over rebel cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi’s demands for an amnesty for all in the mosque.

Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. He is author of three books, including Taliban and most recently Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. He has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for the past quarter-century, writes for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal. He joins us on the phone from Lahore, Pakistan. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ahmed Rashid.

AHMED RASHID: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you explain what you understand happened at the mosque?

AHMED RASHID: Well, the real questions that are being asked now is simply — first of all, this crisis erupted in January when these two mullahs, religious leaders of the mosque, two brothers, defied the central government and said they would take action to impose Sharia, Islamic law, in Islamabad. And it has been escalating ever since. And worst of all, over the last few months, in the mosque they have been accumulating huge amounts of arms, ammunition, money, mobile phones, etc. They set up a network in which they were trying to mobilize madrassas, religious schools and mosques all over the country. And this was happening literally within half a mile of the headquarters of the ISI, that is the Inter-Services Intelligence, the premier intelligence agency, which is cooperating with the CIA in the war on terror, and about a mile from the house — from the official residence of the president and right next to the diplomatic community, the U.S. ambassador, etc. So the fact that this was happening right in the middle of Islamabad, next to all these things, raises the question of, why were these people being allowed to do all this, and what was Musharraf’s aim in allowing, you know all this to escalate until you had the need to actually go in and kill perhaps 150-200 people?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about now the president, General Musharraf’s position? What is the response of the people of Pakistan to this raid — the casualties are still yet unknown, estimates 50 or more — and then the U.S. support, continued support for Musharraf?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think the people are reading the U.S. support, if I could deal with that first, very cynically. I mean, the statement that Musharraf has acted very responsibly is a bit of a joke, frankly. I mean, you know, this has been going on for six months, as I said earlier. But apart from that, I think, what has happened has left people very shocked and very polarized. I don’t think so much that there’s sympathy for the extremists. I think one thing these extremists have done by their stupidity and their stubbornness has been to actually turn many people off extremism and to actually get people to denounce it. But people are also appalled at the way the government has acted and at the huge loss of life that has taken place, and, you know, nobody’s coming forward to answer any of these questions as to how, you know, the arms and ammunition were able to go in.

So you have had a reaction in the last 48 hours from the Northwest Frontier province. That’s the province adjacent to Afghanistan, where there is a large presence of Pakistani Taliban, that is, militant Pashtun tribesmen on the Pakistan side of the border, who’ve been trying to put the same agenda of Islamic law in the region. And they have been demonstrating against Musharraf. They’ve been burning his effigy. There have been bomb blasts against soldiers, against policemen. At least 10 soldiers have died in the last two or three days and perhaps as many as 30 policemen. And the army has moved into many of these — many of the most volatile valleys where there could be very serious unrest. So we still have to see whether this province is going to react.

But as far as the rest of the country is concerned, where 80 percent of the population live, it’s been relatively quiet. The other madrassas, many of the leading radical madrassas in Karachi, in Lahore, in other cities, have been surrounded by police to make sure that none of the students come out. So far, at least, there’s relative quiet, apart from what has been happening in the Northwest Frontier.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. I wanted to ask you about something else you have written about, Ahmed. New evidence has emerged suggesting that Pakistan is planning to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal. A leading Washington think tank says satellite photos show Pakistan is close to completing a third previously unknown plutonium production reactor. David Albright, I believe, the former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, said the plant would give Pakistan the ability to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. Your response?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think it’s very clear that, you know, there is very little information about this, and, of course, when this report was released in the American papers, Pakistan properly denied that it was anything new and said it was just part of an old reactor that had been built. The fact is that there is an arms race going on with India, and there’s no doubt that India is making its nuclear weapons arsenal far more sophisticated now, being able to put it on submarines and aircraft carriers and land and sea capability and second-strike capability. And the Pakistanis are trying to match them, if not in numbers, but certainly in terms of quality, as it were. I think most Americans experts agree now that a missile-mounted nuclear warhead has been perfected by Pakistan, whereas India is still a bit behind on that. So I think, you know, what — we are seeing an arms race. I mean, there’s no doubt in the subcontinent.

There’s a huge arms race in conventional weapons. Pakistan has received something like $10 billion in aid from the Americans since 9/11, and about half of that, more than half of that, has gone to the military. A good 70 to 80 percent of that has just been used to buy American weapons systems. And so, you know, there’s a lot of criticism of that, both here and in the United States, not surprisingly, because a lot of this money should have been earmarked for social programs, economic development, etc., but this being a military regime, naturally they have spent the money the way they wanted.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmed Rashid, do you see the general, President Musharraf, falling? And who are the major forces arrayed against him?

AHMED RASHID: Well, what — I think, you know, Musharraf really has a choice now: Is he going to now go after these fundamentalists and extremists and at the same time gather political support around him, in other words, put out the wide indication that he wants to have a free and fair election and get political support with him for those elections, in which case, there would be political support from moderate secular parties for actions he would have to take against the extremists, or is he going to go down the same road that he has pursued since 9/11, which is this double-dealing road of satisfying the Americans with a bit al-Qaeda, a bit of Taliban here and there, but essentially allowing the Taliban and these extremists who exist in Pakistan and to be able to launch attacks inside Afghanistan? So I think, you know, he’s faced with a critical fork in the road. Which way he goes, we still have to see.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Afghanistan, the reports coming out now that U.S.-NATO forces have killed more Afghan civilians since the beginning of the year than Taliban attacks have, and villagers in a remote western area of Afghanistan now claiming at least a hundred civilians were killed in U.S.-led NATO air strikes in the last week.

AHMED RASHID: Well, yes, I mean, you know, this has become a really very serious issue, despite the fact that, you know, the Taliban are also using civilians in a horrendous way. We’ve just had this bomb blast in southern Afghanistan yesterday in which 12 schoolchildren were killed. It was a suicide bomber aiming to kill Dutch soldiers. He injured seven Dutch soldiers, killed himself and killed 12 schoolchildren. So, you know, the Taliban are doing the same thing.

But clearly, the tragedy in Afghanistan is that the NATO and American forces, there are too few troops on the ground. They don’t have enough equipment. There are not enough helicopters, etc. Sometimes there are up to ten to twelve Taliban attacks across the country. NATO troops can’t get there all the time, so the simplest answer is that, you know, you send an aircraft and bomb the place.

Now, clearly this has led to enormous civilian deaths and real anger by Afghans against the Americans, because, you know, the majority of Afghans don’t understand the difference between NATO and America, and everything is America, so the Americans have come into enormous flak from the population, from President Hamid Karzai himself. And this is really — unfortunately, I would go as strongly as to say that this is really helping lose the war, this loss of civilian life, because it becomes a tool for Taliban propaganda, it angers the farmers and peasants who are suffering at the raw end of this. And it really doesn’t help NATO very much, because NATO and American forces really need boots on the ground, and clearly, you know, they don’t have enough troops.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmed Rashid, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Pakistani journalist — his latest book is called Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia — speaking to us from Lahore, Pakistan.

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