The storm of the Red Mosque in Islamabad was a Pakistani action, undertaken for Pakistani reasons. Really critical actions of future Pakistani governments, civilian or military, will be taken for the same basic reasons – and not at the desire of Washington. US administrations can of course bring great pressure to bear on Pakistan, but for obvious reasons of logic, they are very unlikely ever to get a Pakistani government to commit suicide on their behalf.
It is important to point this out, because so much American commentary seems instinctively based on the unconscious assumption that a Pakistani government's first moral duty is to serve the United States. Coupled with this is the equally strange and dangerous assumption that democracy in Pakistan can automatically be coupled with increased support for the US in the "war on terror".
The attack on the mosque complex was ordered, very reluctantly, because the actions of the group based there had come to be seen as a threat both to the government of President Musharraf, and to the prestige of the state in general. As senior officials told me in May, the growing opinion in government circles was that left unchecked, these actions would embolden more and more militants to defy the authorities and police, until public order would be seriously threatened.
Equally, however, these same officials – like the vast majority of ordinary Pakistanis – strongly opposed any new military offensive against Taleban supporters in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, as insistently demanded by Washington. They feared that this would risk inflaming wider Pashtun sentiments, and leading to a civil war in the Pashtun regions. The deep unpopularity of such an operation in the military would also risk dangerous splits in the officer corps.
It is possible that this attitude on the part of Pakistani officialdom, and even the mass of the Pakistani people, will change, and that many will come round to the belief that Pakistan must in fact repeat its operation of 2005 on a larger scale, and send massive forces into the tribal areas. Such a change may well occur if in response to the storming of the Red Mosque, militants based in the tribal areas start to launch more and more terrorist attacks and guerrilla actions in Pakistan itself. The events of recent days have suggested that such a campaign may indeed be beginning. Once again, however, such a move would be for Pakistani reasons – not to help the US, let alone Afghanistan.
This point leads in turn to a critically important distinction in the attitudes and political behavior of most Pakistanis. As every election has demonstrated, the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis do not support the political, social and ideological agenda of the Islamist parties, and a majority of the Islamists themselves do not support militancy of the Red Mosque type. Most Pakistanis are not "moderate" Muslims, in the sense that Westerners choose to understand this, but they are traditional Muslims, who are attached to their own traditions not modern radical ideologies, and who fear revolutionary unrest.
Even in the circumstances of heightened emotion following the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Islamist coalition (MMA) gained less than 15 per cent of the vote, and that was heavily concentrated in the ethnic Pashtun areas of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan. A majority of the MMA parties themselves denounced the Red Mosque militants. There is therefore no risk of an "Islamist revolution" in Pakistan as a whole for very many years to come.
On the other hand, as every opinion poll demonstrated, the great majority of Pakistanis are bitterly hostile to US strategies in the "war on terror", and in neighbouring Afghanistan. As initial public responses to the storming of the mosque seem to indicate, this distinction leads in turn to support for the government against extremism which threatens to destabilize Pakistan, but opposition to government actions on behalf of the US which are themselves seen as humiliating and destabilizing Pakistan.
The greatest immediate threat of the Red Mosque battle is a considerable increase in terrorism within Pakistan – a danger which Western commentators barely bother to notice, since most victims will be Pakistanis, not Westerners. This fear is indeed one reason why the government hesitated to launch the attack. In April, a suicide bomb killed 31 people at a rally and almost killed the Interior Minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao. With elections approaching, every senior government figure and every non-Islamist politician who addresses a crowd will now be in danger.
Since most Pakistanis vote for such politicians, however, such terrorism is very unlikely indeed to increase mass support for the extremists. On the contrary, it will most likely increase public calls for tougher measures against them. This may be true even in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where many in the Islamist-dominated government would see such actions as a threat to themselves.
On the other hand, when I talked to ordinary people in the NWFP capital, Peshawar, in May, every single one was opposed to large-scale military action against Taleban supporters in the Tribal Areas. And as every one of them stressed – including supporters of Benazir Bhutto's opposition Pakistan People's Party - their hostility to this would hold whether the Pakistani government was military or civilian. As one student told me, "Such an action would not be democratic, because everyone would know that it would not be the will of the Pakistani people, but of Washington."
Too much of Western political and media opinion at the moment is deceiving itself with the belief that there exists some kind of magic key which will make Pakistan an unconditional ally in the "war on terror" – whether Musharraf showing more "resolve", or a "democratically-elected" Pakistani government with the legitimacy to crush the Pakistani Taleban. Astonishingly enough, it is also assumed that a democratic Pakistani government will be willing and able to show complete contempt for the will of a democratic majority of Pakistanis on this issue.
The truth is that every future Pakistani government, civilian or military, will have to perform a complicated dance between the threats from their own extremists and the threats from Washington, between the expectations of Washington and the expectations of their own people. We should recognize that Western leaders would do exactly the same if they found themselves in such a position. We should also recognize that unsatisfactory though Pakistan's behavior often is from our point of view, the internal stability of Pakistan is not just a Pakistani vital interest, but also our own.
Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington DC and co-author, with John Hulsman, of Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World, which is appearing in paperback this November.