Pakistan's Insurgency Begins At Red Mosque

Pakistan faces a devastating insurgency. Pam Constable, a reporter for The Washington Post, recalls the moment when that insurgency began. She talks to Steve Inskeep about clerics preaching against the U.S. and Pakistani governments. By 2007, the Red mosque was stockpiling weapons.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next we'll try to make a baffling country a little less so. Pakistan faces a devastating insurgency. Washington Post reporter Pam Constable recalls the moment when that insurgency began. At a place called the Red Mosque, right in the capital, Islamabad, clerics preached against America and against the Pakistani government. By 2007, they were stockpiling weapons. Finally, the military moved in.

Ms. PAM CONSTABLE (Reporter, Washington Post): They had guns. They had grenades. They threw a lot of smoke and fire. They basically burned the place down. Although, I mean, I should take that back by saying that probably one of the reasons it burned down was because it was so full of heavy weaponry with all sorts of explosives.

INSKEEP: It was a flammable place.

Ms. CONSTABLE: Yes. It was a conflagration.

INSKEEP: But instead of giving up, insurgents multiplied. Pam Constable writes about the Red Mosque in her book on Pakistan, "Playing with Fire."

Ms. CONSTABLE: They had a lot of students there who were, you know, you could call them hostages. You could call them willing recruits. You could call them whatever. But many of them were young. And one of the sort of negative fallouts from that attack was that a number of them were killed. Now, the mullahs claim that it was, you know, many, many hundreds. The government claims that it was under a hundred. But in fact there were young people killed in that attack, and that remained an item of great contention.

INSKEEP: So much has happened over the last several years that it's reasonable that most Americans would barely remember this news item from 2007. But it's vividly remembered in Pakistan. What was the country like before this assault and what changed after the assault?

Ms. CONSTABLE: Well, Pakistan is a huge country and so this is a tiny little corner of it. But the important thing that did change was that at the time, there were sort of two categories of radical Islamic groups in Pakistan - those which were against the government openly, and those which were sort of, you know, selectively coddled or mutually used, or whatever you want to call it, had a relationship with the government.

As a result of this siege they all turned against the government, with practically no exceptions. So this is a real uniting watershed. And as a result of that what you had was sort of a full-fledged assault burst forth on the country. I mean within days of weeks, you started having major terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, commando raids; all kinds of attacks, not only on the military and police targets but also on civilian targets. And that went on for a very long time and it's still going on today.

INSKEEP: When you say that the government of Pakistan cultivated certain militant groups, why did they do that?

Ms. CONSTABLE: The original reason, I would say, was because of the conflict in Kashmir. Pakistan and India have been at loggerheads with each other ever since 1948 when they were split into two countries - one being Muslim-dominated, the other being Hindu-dominated. And so the proxy for that conflict has been Kashmir, which is this disputed border area up in the mountains. And the Pakistanis have been waging a proxy war there for a number of years, and sending in fighters from across the border to fight with Indian forces. So that has always been the flashpoint. INSKEEP: And militant groups were a way to strike at India without the risk and damage and possible defeat of a full-blown war.

Ms. CONSTABLE: That's right.

INSKEEP: So what the Red Mosque assault did was take all these splinter groups and unite them. It gave them a cause.

Ms. CONSTABLE: It did. This sort of broke the tacit or unacknowledged, mutual usefulness between these groups and the government.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about another aspect of this. There have been years now of suicide bombings, of assassinations, of shrines destroyed. Has the public, in your experience in Pakistan, turned against the extremists because of their acts?

Ms. CONSTABLE: On the one hand, if you ask people, you know, do you like the Taliban, most people say no. If you ask people: Do you think its right to chop off people's heads and, you know, do these draconian punishments, many people would say no. But if you ask people: Do you want Islamic law that would be supreme over all other laws, and would essentially be sort of this way of life, the overwhelming majority say yes.

It's in the minds of the public that this would be a better than the current poorly-viewed, inept civilian government. And that's something that a lot of people feel very strongly about.

There's a great deal of alienation among the poor from the state, from the elites. So what's happening is that they are turning towards the only other alternative they have, which is Islam. And so there are very vulnerable terrain, so to speak, for people who want to radicalize their views.

INSKEEP: Pamela Constable is a distinguished correspondent for the Washington Post and author of "Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself."

Thanks very much.

Ms. CONSTABLE: You're very welcome.

INSKEEP: You hear the back story, the story behind the news when you listen to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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