Pakistan wants an Afghanistan acceptable to the West — Islam plus democracy

Ayesha Siddiqa | October 12, 2021 04:04 PM

In 2013, Alfred Stepan and Mirjam Kunkler, two world-renowned American experts on civil-military relations and democracy, talked about ‘twin tolerances’ in their book Democracy and Islam in Indonesia. They built an argument around creating a socio-political ecosystem for forces of democracy and State to accommodate Islamic radical elements willing to take recourse to democratic values or processes while still retaining their Islamism. Drawing on a detailed case study of Indonesia, the duo concluded that ‘twin tolerances’ was a possibility and to this end they proposed building a community of public intellectuals that could develop capacity within a religious society for democratic norms.

Pakistan’s State would like to apply this very formula to Afghanistan.

Pakistan plans for Afghanistan

The aim is to turn Afghanistan into a State where the Taliban agree to apply some norms that are acceptable to Western democracy without adapting entirely to the Western model. This argument has remained close to the Pakistani military’s heart for a long time. General Pervez Musharraf had spoken about Western democratic norms being suited to Pakistan or even other societies. Theoretically, there is a case for ‘twin tolerances’ to be made – if Taliban marginally give up violence and collaborate with the West and the rest of the world to fight more radical forces like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), they could turn into any other Right-wing religious group in the region. South Asia, as a region, is increasingly awash with Right-wing radical forces whose violence is limited to home or within the region rather than outside.

It’s also Islamabad’s calculation that the world may turn around to the idea of accommodating the Taliban for their own reasons.

The UK is in talks with the Taliban via Pakistan at a time when the US is inclined to hold talks more independently. Recently, Washington held the first direct talks with the Taliban post-withdrawal. Surely, London and Washington share notes but the fact that the British military and government both continue to engage with the Taliban give hope to Pakistan that its own plan regarding the future of a Taliban-led Afghanistan may be working. European capitals, though, remain confused about forming a clearer policy. Although the European Commission remains firm on not engaging with the Taliban unless they meet conditions — an inclusive government, female education, due share to women and minorities in decision-making — a solid united front based on a clear approach is still lacking. For instance, Germany, which is a significant State in the region, is concerned about being flooded by Afghan migrants, an issue that is more imagined than real. Islamabad sees this lack of consensus in the West as an opportunity to keep pushing the case for countries to accept the Taliban, which they believe represent the Pashtun culture.

Islamabad’s security establishment is definitely not concerned about the rise of conservatism or extremism in Afghanistan, a result of the Taliban being in power. In fact, the popular view within the larger security establishment is that while women’s education may be an issue, it is at best secondary when compared to the goal of making this new State run, for which Rawalpindi and Islamabad continue to make a case before the international community.

Where Pakistan is headed

Socio-political extremism in Afghanistan is not a matter of concern, primarily because Pakistan itself is taking a similar direction.

The overall changes in the educational system – the Single National Curriculum (SNC) or steps such as making it mandatory for Master’s degree candidates in Punjab to demonstrate knowledge of Quran to qualify – indicate a gradual shift towards turning Pakistan’s nationalism even closer to religion, which then gets reflected in the State’s attitudes towards women and minority groups. While the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISKP denote one end of the religious-extremist spectrum and are a cause of concern, what Pakistan is facing is Barelvi extremism, an ideology that has emerged with force and much more dangerously, especially in the past five years. It has inculcated greater intolerance towards minority groups such as Ahmadiyyas and Shias, and the rapidly disappearing liberals. Though it could be argued that religious-nationalism is the trend that is now pervasive throughout South Asia, there is no parallel to the way it webs Afghanistan and Pakistan together. Interestingly, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region today is a more fundamental reality that extends beyond geo-politics to include socio-politics and political economy.

In Pakistan, both the civil and military leadership subscribe to religious nationalism. It’s in the second half of his current term that Prime Minister Imran Khan has begun to invest more strategically in religious nationalism. The PM’s recent assurance to the ulema of not making any laws that can be considered against Islamic values, as defined by the clergy, is not simply about his personal conservatism but a political choice — of strengthening the religious Right that he may depend on one day for his fight against both his political opponents and the army as an institution. He may want to use religious forces to his advantage. Khan understands that the religious extremist, though manufactured by the military, do scare the generals. My argument may sound counter-intuitive as Imran Khan has demonstrated no desire to fight the military except perhaps for now. Rumours are rife regarding the Prime Minister’s reluctance to notify the new ISI chief’s appointment. But the fact is that every political actor produced by the military ends up with some level of confrontation whenever he or she tries to secure more power or their own future, in government.

The Right serves the military just right
As for the military’s desire to fight the militants, it may do a tactical confrontation but not a strategic one. It’s about using military action to influence behaviour and not destroy the forces of religious Right. Contrary to the expectations the Pakistani liberals carry, that the military has the power to eliminate the extremist-militants, Rawalpindi’s capacity has reduced — not the war-fighting capability but the intent. The GHQ is equally invested in the religious Right for its geo-political ambitions. Despite its difficult experience of terrorist attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is fundamentally part of the Afghan Taliban, the military decision-makers remain invested in the Taliban. Khan’s suggestion of dialogue with the TTP is not a new concept. Even Nawaz Sharif had suggested talks with Right-wing religious groups rather than military action. However, the 2015-16 proposal was more of a tactic aimed at co-opting some militants that were ready to talk. Sharif’s peace overture to the TTP was also different as he, unlike Imran Khan, took all other parties on board by organising the All-Parties Conference to develop a consensus.

The Pakistan army would rather convince militants to give up arms so that the State does not have to fight battles with them. Allowing the extremist-militants to impose their version of sharia in the tribal belt of Pakistan may just be considered a small price to pay. In any case, the popular narrative among Pakistan’s security community is that Pashtunwali or the Pashtun culture is akin to Taliban sharia. Furthermore, some forms of sharia have already touched the households and personal lives of all those involved in military-strategic decision-making in Pakistan – from the army chief and many of the corps commanders to the National security Advisor. These are men with greater tolerance for religious conservatism and their only desire at the moment may be for Pakistan to remain a hybrid theocracy. A set up with few spaces for demonstration of socio-cultural liberalism, something which would make it easier to engage with the world rather than a deeply theocratic form of the Taliban. In 74 years, Pakistan and Afghanistan have begun to look more similar than before.

Ayesha Siddiqa is senior research fellow at King’s College, London and author of Military Inc. Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.

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