Friday, September 23, 2016
Herald Book Review Sept 22, 2016
Book Review Lessons and fallout of the Lal Masjid episode Rashed Rahman Adam Dolnik and Khuram Iqbal: Negotiating the Siege of the Lal Masjid Oxford University Press, 2016 Price Rs 1,095 The increasing incidence of situations all over the world where groups or individuals barricade themselves, take hostages, and put forward demands related to their grievances has given rise over the last four or so decades to the ‘science’ of negotiating desired outcomes to such standoffs. Adam Dolnik and Khuram Iqbal are scholars in this increasingly important field in an age of terrorism, organized or ‘lone wolf’. In their study of one such standoff that unfortunately ended in bloody fashion, titled Negotiating the Siege of the Lal Masjid, they have made an incisive and educative contribution to understanding the principles of handling such conflict situations that have evolved over time, based on the accumulated experience of managing the tickly negotiations aspect of such potentially explosive confrontations. They have also researched the evolution of the Lal Masjid crisis as it played out in Islamabad in 2007 in the full glare of media and public scrutiny. Applying the general principles delineated by them as a theoretical basis for managing such crises, the authors critically examine the actual playbook of the Lal Masjid siege, drawing critical lessons from the failure of the negotiations process to produce a peaceful resolution. This failure and the factors that led to it form the bedrock of their conclusions regarding the errors of omission and commission that informed the authorities’ approach to the crisis. First and foremost, the authors stress the criticality of (preferably) private and reliable communication channels between the authorities and the barricaded group or individuals. Avoiding a condemnatory stance can help government negotiators to gradually win the trust of the barricaded party. Buying time through lending a seemingly sympathetic ear to the besieged group or individual’s grievances not only satisfies their perfectly human desire to be heard, it also allows the authorities to utilize the time factor to wear down the group or individual’s focus on broad or generalized demands (e.g. in the Lal Masjid case, the initial maximalist demand for the imposition of Sharia in Pakistan) to more ‘doable’ steps or even mundane, everyday needs such as food, water, sleep, etc, these needs increasingly looming as more important than the initial ‘universal’ demands by the besieged. Critical to this tricky and delicate negotiations process in such confrontations is the presence on the authorities’ side of trained and experienced negotiators well versed in the trajectory of such standoffs, who also provide at the same time important ‘distancing’ of the government’s decision makers from the continuing exchanges. This implies the expert negotiator’s insertion between the authorities and the besieged, which yields the additional space and time to deal with the barricaded party’s demands by pleading the necessity to refer all these demands to the higher decision making authorities. Over the course of the negotiations process, the expert negotiator may be allowed to express to the other party his/her endorsement of the demands in principle, while disagreeing with the method/s chosen to achieve them. In situations where hostages have been taken and are being used as human shields or bargaining chips by the besieged, it is very important to nudge and persuade the latter that their cause would be damaged if harm is caused to the hostages. The authors warn against the insertion of third party negotiators in the process because such elements may or may not be in harmony with the government’s stance, priorities and policy, may agree to demands or even offer concessions beyond their limited mediatory mandate, thereby complicating if not producing an impassable impasse in the negotiations efforts. If the above is a shortlist of what to do and what to avoid in a standoff of the kind that emerged when Maulana Abdul Aziz and his brother Rashid Ghazi decided to defy the writ of the state by seizing the Children’s Library next to the Lal Masjid as a protest against the government’s steps to demolish mosques built on encroached land in Islamabad, the authorities violated just about every one of these precepts. Even earlier, the Lal Masjid and its attached madrassa Jamia Hafza’s militants had launched a ‘moral policing’ effort in the capital against video shops, beauty parlours, etc, as dens of vice and (spiritual) corruption. These vigilante moves could be considered in hindsight as the opening salvos of the Lal Masjid brigade’s intent to pressurize the government on their central demand of the implementation of Sharia in Pakistan (needless to say, according to the mullahs of Lal Masjid’s interpretation). Observers of this burgeoning vigilante activity at the time, whose ranks boasted hundreds of women militants, thought that if the mischief had been nipped in the bud through a police action, things may not have spiralled to the point of an armed standoff at the Lal Masjid. But whereas such speculations belong in the ‘what if’ category, the facts speak for themselves. The siege of Lal Masjid lasted weeks, during which some developments are noteworthy. Initially, the authorities seemed to vacillate between threats to use force against the defiant mullah brothers and their followers and backing down to try to reach a peaceful settlement. To this end, the ulema were used as negotiators/mediators (the Wafaq al Madaris for example) but it soon emerged that they neither fully agreed with the Lal Masjid brothers nor the authorities on whose behalf they were supposed to be interceding, and in fact had ambitions of their own to take over the Lal Masjid, Jamia Hafza, et al, once Maulana Aziz and Rashid Ghazi had been ‘removed’. Needless to say, once these facts were revealed in the public space, the chapter of ulema mediation was closed. Similarly, the public (Religious Minister Ijazul Haq, Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao, et al) and not so public (Chaudhry Shujaat, for example) negotiations with the militants did ostensibly produce a peaceful solution through the militants’ surrender of arms and the mosque/madrassa premises in return for the authorities’ promise to restore any demolished mosques and close the campaign against mosques built on encroached land (a malaise that afflicts the whole country) and allow Rashid Ghazi safe passage to his home in Rajanpur (Maulana Aziz had already been arrested while trying to escape in a burqa). The terms of this ‘agreement’ were summarily rejected by President General Pervez Musharraf when the ministers in the authorities’ negotiating team presented them to him, and he insisted on a strict compliance with the authorities’ demand for unconditional surrender of the militants holed up inside the mosque on pain of military action against them if they did not do so. The die was thus cast. The authors of the book state this fact blandly and without comment. They may have been better served, and served their readers better, had they reflected on how Musharraf similarly rejected an agreement negotiated by the redoubtable Chaudhry Shujaat with Nawab Akbar Bugti when that particular standoff was in progress in Dera Bugti a mere year before the Lal Masjid episode. There too, Musharraf’s haste in use of military force rather than allowing negotiations to deliver a peaceful solution resulted in Nawab Akbar Bugti’s death and as a consequence a widespread acceleration of the Baloch nationalist insurgency, which continues, despite ups and downs, till today. Similarly, the procrastination initially against the Lal Masjid’s vigilante activities by Musharraf’s government, and his decision to use military force when a peaceful resolution seemed tantalizingly close, fed into the outbreak of a homegrown insurgency/terrorism that despite successes in FATA, continues to bleed the country to date. To Musharraf’s ‘commando’ instincts, therefore, much of the country’s woes are owed.