Yesterday, the Pakistani supreme court released Maulana Abdul Aziz, a militant ideologue and leader of Islamabad’s Red Mosque. During the siege of the Red Mosque in July 2007, triggered by his supporters’ unchecked vigilantism in Pakistan’s capital finally provoked a reaction from Pakistani security forces, Aziz was arrested attempting to escape dressed as a woman. The siege, in which at least a hundred were reportedly killed, has since become a rallying cry for a disparate array of militant groups along the country’s northwest border and in the heartland of Punjab itself. Conducting Friday prayers at the mosque today, Aziz told the crowd of followers that “the blood of those who were martyred here will usher in an Islamic revolution.”
While Aziz’s release should raise alarms, as Joshua Frost at Registan.net notes, the Supreme Court decision is part of a broader ongoing rebuke by the judicial establishment and civil society of the Musharraf regime’s use of indefinite extra-constitutional detentions as a means of handling terror suspects — a problem the Obama administration itself is attempting to grapple with itself as it examines options for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Aziz still faces 26 charges, including abetting murder and incitement, but the government’s failure to bring any of those to court during his nearly two years’ long imprisonment speaks to the incapacity of Pakistan’s judicial system to effectively respond to those who seek its overthrow. The pattern of reluctance or inability of the government to carry out swift legal action in the case of major terror suspects such as Aziz, Rashid Rauf, and several Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives linked to the Mumbai attacks has increased tensions with Pakistan’s neighbors and international allies, fueling suspicion that Pakistan’s security services are playing a double game to preserve their former militant clients.
In both the long and short runs, the goal of the United States must be to help build an effective, democratic Pakistani state able to defend itself from an aggressive internal insurgency. Without an effective, efficient justice system, a democratic Pakistan will remain weak and unable to enforce its own laws throughout the country. As the New York Times article on the rise of the Swat valley Taliban makes clear, the absence of effective state institutions to rectify societal inequities -– especially a fair and efficient judicial system –- give militants the space in which to seize power and impose their own rules.
Contrary to Maulana Abdul Aziz’s claim that “the whole country resounds to cries for the implementation of Islamic law,” the vast majority of Pakistanis voted for secular political parties in the most recent national elections in February 2008. Pakistan’s most recent large protest movement was not for the state enforcement of religious regulations, but the reinstatement of the Musharraf-dismissed chief justice of the Supreme Court. Pakistanis, as far as can be determined, want an effective democratic state, not a brutal religious dictatorship.
But in the short term, at least, the release of Aziz will serve to empower militants at a time when they are already buoyed by the open establishment of parallel government structures in the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Aziz’s vow to build on the Taliban’s success in Swat should be taken seriously by the Pakistani government and the United States. The increasing infiltration of militancy into the heart of Pakistan will only continue to accelerate. At a certain point, the United States will have to decide if it wants to persist in its efforts to build up the Frontier Corps to deal with the Taliban in the border areas, or perform triage and build up the Pakistani civilian security apparatus –- especially the police -– in the “settled areas” of Pakistan.