Change in Pakistan requires respect, reconciliation, and religious freedom
The US needs the Pakistani government to deny the Afghan Taliban sanctuary. Pakistan needs incentive.
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3. Reconciliation, however, will not take place without religious freedom.
The Taliban assassinates Pashtun clerics who speak out against them or their partnership with the Arab Al Qaeda. This is because an interpretation of Islam other than theirs threatens their very reason for being. If religious freedom is the greatest threat to the Taliban, then that is where counterinsurgency must begin.
Islamist parties like the political Pashtun-dominated JUI(F) party – which surprised political observers by winning a seat in the North West Frontier Provincial Assembly during a special election this month – have a role to play.
Such parties have the potential to be an ethnotheological, and therefore political, bridge to the Afghan and Pakistan Talibans, setting the stage for political participation (a transition that would accelerate the growing awareness that it is time to break with Al Qaeda).
Yet, incredibly, the US State Department’s recently released Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy – which argues for a better strategic communications campaign that counters the “narrative” of the Taliban terrorists – does not mention “faith,” “religion,” or “Islam.” Ignoring religion, ensures the total irrelevance of America’s policy toward this crucial region.
As it stands, the Pakistani government is currently unable or unwilling to deny the Afghan Taliban the sanctuary and support it receives from the Pakistan Taliban. If America seeks sustainable stability in Afghanistan, it must allow for the vital role that Islam can play in creating a process where respect, reconciliation, and religious freedom can help build a healthy and civil society – in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
All parties will have different understandings of what goes into those words, but it is only through an intentional conversation that Pakistan and its people can begin to address the extremists in their midst; thereby enabling the end of the Taliban insurgencies on both sides of the border.
Chris Seiple is the president of the Institute for Global Engagement, a think-tank that builds religious freedom worldwide through local partners. He is a former infantry officer in the Marine Corps.
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