Pakistan is opening a dangerous Pandora’s box with the Taliban

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Discourteous remarks about Afghanistan made by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the recent Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting were an insult to the Afghan nation reeling from the Taliban takeover. In his remarks, Khan described the non-monolithic Taliban group as a predominately ethnic Pashtun movement, implicitly casting millions of Pashtuns as the Taliban’s adherents. The prime minister, meanwhile, said girls’ education is antithetical to Afghan values and went on to discuss “Islamophobia” in the West — an epiphenomenon supposedly linked to the recent refugee influx, which Khan wants to champion as a savior. 

For Pakistani leaders, such calculated tirades are no accident. These recurring talking points are indicative of Pakistan’s long-running designs to create a new, false narrative about post-American Afghanistan. With the Taliban’s victory, Pakistan no longer makes secret what it wants in Afghanistan, a country which Islamabad now treats as an extension of Pakistan. 

But perceptions matter. For decades, Pakistan has maintained a particular fascination for engagement with violent Islamist movements. The three Ms – mullahs, military and militants – have effectively hijacked the progressive vision of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, turning Pakistan into a de facto Islamic state with religion and military poisoning the state apparatus.

In the 1980s, General Zia-ul-Haq, then-military dictator-turned-president, enabled the Islamization of Pakistan’s military, which continues to this day. In fact, jihad, which forms a foundational element of the Pakistan army’s credo (Iman, Taqwa, Jihad fi Sabil Allah or Faith, Piety, Jihad in the path of God) has been a crucial part of state ideology.

Under Khan today, there is a new school of military thinking in which Pakistani leaders are openly reclaiming the state’s Islamic credentials and are unapologetically buttressing Pakistan’s Islamization agenda. Yet, with extremism resurging in the country, there is a visible gap between the deep state’s ambitions and the willingness of millions of local Pakistanis to accept such an imposed identity.

Similarly, inside Afghanistan, Pakistan’s deep state is on an organized march to transform the Taliban into “Talibanism” — a toxic blend of hybrid Deobandi ideology and a customized set of beliefs glued superficially together by Islamic Sharia. As such, Pakistan has constantly validated the Taliban as a vanguard for Afghanistan’s leadership and has weaponized its false Afghan nationalism, patriotism and suicidal jihadism. This ideology has rendered the Taliban a powerful and unmatched brand in which it offers a sense of belonging to unemployable rural Afghans with the ability and license for direct action.

Make no mistake, Afghanistan’s own distasteful historical past, rooted in the continuing competition between cultural religiosity and modernism, provides Pakistan the space and ammunition to exploit. This dangerous contest has often put the country at a clash with itself. 

At present, a broad streak of political Islamism permeates Afghan society. Madrassa education is routine in the formative years across rural Afghanistan. Thousands of madrassas remain unregulated, and most operate under accidental mullahs and reactionary Islamic clerics. Worse, there is an unnatural fascination with martyrdom, which requires an enemy. That’s why the Taliban rulers want Islam as the basis of national politics, Afghan identity and legal framework.

As such, they are re-engineering the principles of Afghan nationalism to align with the Taliban’s ideological characteristics, which involves purifying their ranks and developing a national force that can fight and win.  

To be sure, it is difficult to determine whether the Taliban will ever be able to run a non-ideological Afghan state. But by casting it as a Pashtun movement, Pakistan risks sparking Pashtun nationalism in more than 40 million Pashtuns who transcend well beyond Afghan borders into Pakistan.

Without a doubt, the Taliban – admired by Pakistani religious leaders, extremist political parties and militant groups – would increasingly exploit such nationalistic tendencies. As such, Pakistani leaders, who maintain their own India-centric nationalism, would selectively encourage the group to geographically limit such exploitation of nationalism to Afghanistan. In this managed chaos, Pakistan will provide political compensation to Taliban rulers for their concessions.

Nonetheless, the continuing phenomenon of whether there can ever be a constitutionally viable non-ideological Afghan state raises serious questions. The Taliban clerics are “originalists” in nature who seem to function under their own constitution, known as dasturwhich describes the emirate as a desired state endorsed by the clerical council and the supreme court. To these clerics, the ultimate recognition comes from their own followers and fighters, not outsiders.

For Pakistan, and the Taliban’s pragmatists, this would ultimately create a challenge, who for now appears less concerned about cross-border terrorism and more about an unmanageable Taliban in bed with anti-Pakistani groups.

What’s more, there are internal concerns about radicalization within Pakistan’s own military ranks. For example, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, which provides the top-most recruits to Pakistan’s army followed by Pashtuns, there are growing overlaps in recruitment drives between the army and militant groups in the province, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Even if the new military recruits are not extremist leaning, they hail from conservative families or areas where extremist groups pervade.

Meanwhile, the income discrepancy between the couple hundred Pakistani general officers and thousands of mid-rank officers is another source of internal tensions. As an established practice, Pakistan’s army provides subsidized housing and other benefits to those at or above the brigadier general level. Not only has it left scores of mid-rank officers, including colonels and majors, dissatisfied, but it has also reportedly raised alarms inside Pakistan’s military about the dangers of the so-called “colonels’ coup.” 

With its politically-borne Islamic tendencies, Pakistan appears to be headed in the wrong direction. As the Taliban’s whisperers, Pakistani leaders may have calculated that the Taliban is an expensive enemy, but a cheaper partner. But by invoking Pashtun nationalism, which is rooted in the Taliban’s ideology, Pakistan is opening a dangerous Pandora’s box that would be hard to manage.

Javid Ahmad is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and was formerly Afghanistan’s ambassador to the UAE, 2020-2021. Follow him on Twitter @ahmadjavid. 

Tags Afghan Taliban Afghanistan conflict Afghanistan Pakistan Afghanistan–Pakistan relations Imran Khan Pashtuns Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan War in Afghanistan

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