Victory or defeat in Afghanistan will be determined by how the United States engages Pakistan this year.
In particular, the US counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan hinges on whether or not the “Afghan Taliban,” a Pashtun movement, maintains sanctuary and support from outside the country.
Currently, the Pakistani government is not denying that sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, or the “Pakistan Taliban” (also Pashtun). I spent 10 days last month in Islamabad and Peshawar speaking with leaders from across society, including those with direct access to the Taliban.
Conversations revealed that there are three things that the US must understand in order to end the Taliban insurgencies on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border: respect, reconciliation, and religious freedom.
1. Reverse the respect deficit between Pakistan and America.
Pakistan views its relationship with the US in the context of its primary threat: India. The Indian Army’s commander recently said it could invade Pakistan from the east and defeat it in 96 hours as part of it’s “Cold Start” military doctrine, which calls for a rapid and integrated offensive using all of India's military forces. A pro-Indian Afghanistan along the western border of Pakistan would encircle the country with potential enemies.
Because Pakistan is not sure of US intentions in Afghanistan (I was constantly asked whether America is planning to stay or leave Afghanistan) the Pakistani Army has no incentive to defeat the Pakistan Taliban in the border areas. Better to keep the Taliban, conventional Pakistani wisdom suggests, as a buffer against the possibility of a pro-Indian Afghanistan.
The US, on the other hand, views the relationship with Pakistan through its biggest concern: Al Qaeda. The US is focused on defeating an Arab-dominated Al Qaeda, whose forces are nested among Taliban groups along both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border.
Thus, the US has put so much pressure on the Pakistani government to move against Al Qaeda and the terrorist elements of the Taliban that many Pakistanis consider President Asif Ali Zardari to be an American stooge. The Pakistani reluctance to go after all of the Taliban groups within its borders, after a new multibillion dollar aid package from the US, meanwhile, gives some Americans the impression of ingratitude.
Adding injury to insult for the Pakistanis are the American drone attacks that the Pakistani government has unofficially sanctioned – at the insistence of the US – but not publicly acknowledged.
While most Pakistanis believe that these strikes do not respect them or their sovereignty, there is also general recognition that they are increasingly accurate, killing Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Nevertheless, too many civilians have been killed by accident.
The Taliban manipulates these civilian deaths to justify suicide bomber attacks throughout the border areas. Incredibly, the Taliban blame a ficticious “American Taliban” – CIA and Blackwater infiltrators sent to destabilize the region – for these attacks. (I wish I was kidding.) In the absence of access to other information, or a concerted effort by the Pakistani government and press to deny such rumors, many along the border believe such nonsense.
Although the majority of Pashtuns do not support the Taliban, the Pashtuns are, as someone told me, “one body.” They all know someone who has lost a family member to the drone and terrorist attacks, and they all know someone in the Taliban.
2. Reconciliation is central to a solution.
If the Pakistan Taliban can be integrated into the Pakistani political process, they are much more likely to stop providing sanctuary and support to their Pashtun brothers who make up the Afghan Taliban.
And if support of the Afghan Taliban ceases from within the Pakistan border, Afghan stability is not far behind. The US-Pakistan relationship would then be freed to mature beyond the perceived disrespect of the moment into a healthy recognition of long-term and common interests.
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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