The ‘Good’, The ‘Bad’ & The ‘Deobandi’ Taliban

The seizure of Afghan capital, Kabul by the Taliban and their declaration to declare Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate has again raised the spectre of The Good, The Bad and The Deobandi Taliban.

The Good and Bad Taliban

I believe the distinction between the good and the bad Taliban, was first made by Shah Mahmood Qureshi during his first tenure as the Pakistani foreign minister from 208-2011. Interpreting his statement led to the fact that Pakistan believed that the Taliban aligned to Pakistan were the good Taliban and those opposed to its policies and intervention in Afghanistan are bad Taliban.

The western media took the categorisation step forward and even American politicians like Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton used the phrase to divide the Taliban into two different categories.

While delving into the psyche of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban let’s be clear that the Taliban is not a monolithic organisation, it has various factions and tribal and clannish rivalries. In the background of the traditional Afghan society we have to understand that the smallest functioning unit is the village and the local village headman or the local Imam holds sway over the vast multitude of uneducated Afghans, thus the message which they get from the local leader is the final order for them, added to their loyalty to the local militia or the Taliban unit.  In addition, the local commanders wield a lot of clout and power. Moreover, when the uneducated rural folks are handed the latest automatic weapons, they become another power unit of their own, with no link to the tag with which they were attached.

More recently, before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the chief of the US Central Command General Kenneth F. McKenzie called the Taliban “very pragmatic and very business like”. This sounded more like ‘good’ Taliban, as they were eager to gain legitimacy before the US withdrawal and were putting out their best behaviour.

This shift is happening in the Taliban ranks too, and as per the rules set by the west and Pakistan, the factions who align with them will be the ‘good’ Taliban. And those who are still committed to the old or stubborn Taliban are termed as ‘bad’ Taliban.

The Deobandi Taliban

But perhaps the most damaging sobriquet attached to Taliban is describing them as Deobandi. It shows that the people who describe them so have no clue about the great Indian seminary of Darul Uloom, Deoband and the role, which it played in tempering the Muslims sentiments on secular lines in addition to its immense contributions to the freedom struggle of India.

Barbara Daly Metcalf, an expert on the history of South Asia, especially the colonial period and the history of the Muslim population of India and Pakistan, in her book Islamic Revival in British India, Deoband 1860-1900 (February 2002) describes Deoband at the turn of the millennium emerging into public consciousness because of the association of the leadership of the Afghan Taliban regime with the Deobandi Ulema of Pakistan. 

She is of the view that many of the Taliban, whose very name described them as madrasa ‘students’, had studied in Deobandi seminaries in the Pakistan frontier provinces when, from the 1980s on, millions of Afghans had settled as refugees in that area. And based on this fact collectively calling all Taliban as Deobandi Taliban and casting aspersions on the Indian Deoband seminary is complete ignorance of Islam in the sub-continent.

The surge in the number of madrasas coincided with the influx of some three million Afghan refugees, for whose boys these madrasas provided the only available education. One school in particular, the Madrasa Haqqaniya, in Akora Khatak near Peshawar, trained many of the top Taliban leaders. These sometime students were shaped by many of the amended Deobandi reformist causes, all of which were further encouraged with Wahabi interpretation by Arab volunteers in Afghanistan.

These causes included rigorous concern with fulfilling rituals related to daily prayers and reciting the Holy Quran; opposition to custom laden ceremonies such as weddings and pilgrimage to shrines, along with practices associated with the Barelvi and Shi’a minority; and a focus on seclusion of women as a central symbol of a morally ordered society.

Theirs was, according to political analyst Ahmed Rashid, ‘an extreme form of Deobandism’, which was being preached by Pakistani Islamic parties in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. 

None of the Deobandi movements has a theoretical stance in relation to political life. They either expediently embrace the political culture of their time and place, or withdraw from politics completely. As happened in India after independence in 1947, when the leaders of Darul Uloom withdrew from the political scene completely and confined them to Deoband.

Barbara further asserts that the Deobandi madrasas on the Pakistani frontier closed periodically to allow their students to support Taliban efforts.  But the historical pattern launched by the Deobandi Ulema, had treated political life on a primarily secular basis, typically, de facto if not de jure, identifying religion with the private sphere, and in that sphere fostering Islamic teachings and interpretations that have proven widely influential.

British historian and academic specialising on the history of South Asia and Islam, Francis Robinson, in an essay on the first edition of Barbara’s book, described the Deobandi movement as ‘the most constructive and most important Islamic movement of the [nineteenth) century.’ 

He further says that aside from Deoband’s enduring influence, it exemplifies a patter-represented in general terms in a range of Islamic movements outside South Asia as well-of cultural renewal on the one hand and political adaptability on the other.

We also need to be aware of the fact that the Pakistani madrassas, which were described as Deobandi, essentially followed the curriculum prescribed by the Indian Darul Uloom. Further some of the founders of these madrassas might have studied at the Darul Uloom, but they had no umbilical link with their alma mater, and just based on the fact that they followed a particular syllabus they were described as Deobandi, though in fact the psyche and practice of their leaders were completely different from the teachings of the Deobandi. Thus, it would be a misnomer to call the Taliban as ‘Deobandi’ Taliban.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)

Imran – Between Hardliners And A Hard Place

It used to be hockey once upon a time, it is now cricket. Winning a cricket match against India, after all the mutual war cries on the battlefield and cricket ground, has been the best thing to happen, in a long time, to Pakistan’s cricketing hero-turned-politician, Prime Minister Imran Khan.

A true Pathan, he may keep his handsome chin up. But he is currently besieged from all sides, and analysts at home and abroad have begun to say that he may not complete his term, now into its third year.

He has goofed his way through his first-ever stint in political power, changing ministers and special assistants to man his government with a record that can better that of Donald Trump. He gained office, albeit through an election, but essentially because the all-powerful army, decided to anoint him after being disillusioned with the two earlier options, the Pakistan Peoples’ party and the Pakistan Muslim League of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

He has angered his benefactors, first by messing up governance. At this time last year, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) of opposition parties was, for the first time, attacking the armed forces and even mentioning the top brass by name at protest rallies. The movement frittered away this year because of their own competing ambitions and mutual contradictions. The military mainly, but Imran, at least partially, must get credit for this.

But the movement is back, when the military sees him as ‘interfering’ in its working. He has shown preference for Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, the Director General, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is the most powerful wing of the powerful army. Hameed’s visiting Kabul, allegedly at Imran’s behest, and speaking to media, a tea mug in hand, has upset the Chief, Gen. Qaiser Javed Bajwa.

The talk in the Army GHQ, reports say, is that it is one thing to guide the whole strategy and operation that brought the Taliban back to power in Afghanistan, but it is quite another for the ISI chief, albeit a key man in it, to be seen as a peacemaker among the quarrelling Taliban helping them to form their interim government. Also, his alleged role in ensuring key posts in that government for the Haqqani family that runs a dreaded network of fighters that is proscribed by the United Nations, has upset the United States. Seething over the way it was made to evacuate from Afghanistan and looking for scapegoats, the US, holding all the aces at global financial bodies, could get bloody-minded and along with the Taliban, punish Pakistan as well.

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Getting funds from friends has been iffy. Saudi Arabia, which took back two billion it loaned last year, has just agreed to $3billion. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) wants to impose severe preconditions that Islamabad is loath to accept because of their adverse impact on the domestic front, last week sent back Finance Minister Shaukat Tareen without a pact.

Bajwa transferred Hameed out of the ISI, and had an official announcement made. After a huge public debate for three weeks, Imran has surrendered in this turf war with the army. The tussle shows him up as less trust-worthy by the men in khaki, also vulnerable to his political opponents, ready to pounce upon him. The PDM has revived, this time to protest rising prices of essential commodities.

Like the opposition parties, Imran has a tough time dealing with the Islamists. Some of them have joined the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP)’s “Long March” from Lahore to Islamabad. In a way, Imran is getting the dose of the same medicine he served his predecessor Nawaz Sharif, laying a siege that lasted several weeks and was called off, again, on a telephone call from the Army GHQs.

The TLP’s demands make scary reading for Imran and his government. Besides release of its chief who has been in and out of jail, it wants the government to expel the French envoy in Islamabad because of France’s action against its radical Muslims. The diplomatic fallout of any such action could impact Pakistan’s relations, with not just France, but the entire Western world that is fearful of rising militancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  

As the long marchers broke through security cordons last week, the government did the only thing it has been used to – talk with an organization it has banned, and release hundreds of marchers and their key leaders. It is readying to talk also to its own Taliban of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Although many Muslims across the globe are upset with what they perceive as Islamophobia of the West, only in Pakistan, perhaps, thousands take to the streets on this issue and some even die of police bullets.

To return to the Afghanistan developments, they give Pakistan a distinct geo-political advantage over all other stake holders. But Imran cannot rejoice at this victory that is so far proving to be Pyrrhic. The Islamists at home have become bolder and the TLP march is just one indicator. The Taliban rule has resolved nothing in Pakistan’s relations with Kabul, nor within Afghanistan. This has meant more refugees crossing over the Khyber Pass. Pakistan already hosts half-a-million, some for the last four decades. The socio-economic impact of all this is negative.

ALSO READ: Taliban’s Victory Puts Pakistan In A Spot

The US wants to retain more than just a foot-hold in the region and is pressuring Islamabad to allow air operations facilities. Imran Khan has vociferously refused it, but may have to yield, angering the Taliban in Kabul who have warned of ‘consequences’. These are difficult choices and Imran Khan is no Churchill or De Gaulle.

Lastly, the India factor. In the last two decades, despite frequent upheavals, successive governments on both sides have brought phases of understanding and relative peace. But Narendra Modi believes in giving-it-back. He did pay a surprise visit to Lahore to attend a wedding in Nawaz Sharif’s family. But he has simply ignored Imran Khan, when not calling him “Mr Niazi”, an allusion to the general who surrendered to the Indian forces in Dhaka 50 years ago. Pakistan under Imran has become part of his party’s electoral arithmetic.

Khan has lost both ways. He wished for Modi’s success in the 2019 Indian elections, and when that happened, he has been attacking Modi and his government of ‘fascism’ and what not. His anti-India pitch has not worked even after Modi Government’s most provocative action against Pakistan, of dissolving the very entity of the disputed State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Facing all these woes, at home, abroad and with India, Imran Khan and his “men in green” deserve winning the cricket match.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Taliban Victory Puts Pakistan In A Spot

Pakistani government at the moment seems to be in a quandary. The manner in which it wanted to exploit the Taliban victory in Afghanistan has rebounded threatening to reinforce religious fundamentalists inclinations in Pakistan itself. US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan was due to the realisation that religious fundamentalism might not remain contained to Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan may give Pakistan a choice to look at its relationships with its neighbours, not just from an anti-India stance as it tries to rein-in and influence Taliban to remain pro-Pakistan and not adopt an independent policy of their own.

However, the religio-politico situation of the region which started rearing its head in 1980s with the help of US and Saudi-backed fanatical elements to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan, has increasingly showed ripple effect in Pakistan, the Tehrik-e Taliban-e Pakistan (TTP) remains a prime example of such thinking.

Pakistan is seen as working in support of the Taliban as reports suggest that it was based on the advice of Pakistani military and government officials that the US generals stuck to the Taliban’s August 31 deadline for an end to US evacuation so that the group can move forward with forming a government.

In fact the Pakistani military started working on efforts to persuade the United States to negotiate an end to the war with the Taliban even before they gained control of Afghanistan, a development Pakistani officers believed was inevitable. Based on those inputs the US started to engage with Taliban in early 2019.

Commenting on the evolving situation Ayesha Siddiqa a geo-politics adviser at SOAS, UK said that Rawalpindi invested primarily in the Taliban as it knew that US would ultimately leave Afghanistan. Rawalpindi’s prime desire was to ensure a friendly establishment in its north-western neighbouring nation, which doesn’t get exploited against Pakistan’s interests, especially by India.

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However, the investment over 27 years has produced mixed results. It certainly did not translate into the Taliban doing Pakistan’s bidding. Ms. Siddiqa described Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid’s promise that Afghan media would be free as “a reminder of similar assurances about media freedom by Pakistan’s generals, which makes one realise the effort afoot to make a Taliban-led regime look increasingly like Pakistan (or even India): Hybrid-authoritarian and hybrid-theocratic… This is where the real problem for Pakistan begins.”

While Pakistani fears that the Taliban victory may give a violent boost to the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban that has close ties to their Afghan kin, the TTP had started to be active again inside Pakistan even before the Taliban capture of Afghanistan.

The Taliban victory benefits from decades in which religious fundamentalism was woven into the fabric of Pakistani society as well as some of its key institutions.

Ms. Siddiqa comments, “The fact remains that, notwithstanding the ambition to mellow the tone of religion in Afghanistan, Pakistan itself runs the risk of becoming more like its north-western neighbour – more religious and more authoritarian.”

Pakistan understands the complex situation very well and that’s why it was pushing the Taliban to opt for a truly inclusive government besides broadening its contacts with other Afghan groups. A visit last week to the Pakistani capital by representatives of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and other Afghan politicians is a pointer in that regard.

In discussing the fallout for Pakistan of the Taliban victory, analysts have by and large focussed on Pakistan as fertile ground for the spread of Taliban-style religious fundamentalism as well as concerns that it would enable TTP to rekindle their campaign of attacks in Pakistan.

The TTP is a coalition of Pashtun Islamist groups with close ties to the Afghan Taliban that last year joined forces with several other militant Pakistani groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a violently anti-Shiite Sunni Muslim supremacist organisation.

“Pashtuns of the Afghan Taliban will, after a few years in power, find common cause with their Pashtun kinsmen in Pakistan… There are plenty of Pakistani Pashtuns who would prefer the whole of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) to be part of a wider Pashtunistan,” predicts scholar and former British ambassador to Pakistan Tim Willasey-Wilsey.

In fact, the events of the last 75 years confirm that the main focus of Pakistan’s foreign policy has always been anti-Indian in tenor and practice. It became a fertile ground for Mujahedeen in the 1970s, as it wanted to exert more influence on the Soviet state as compared to India besides stoking fire in Indian Kashmir.

Later it allied with the US just in order to belittle India, but the reality is that Pakistan has always tried to be involved in the Afghan affairs due to the economic gains also and this trend continues even now. The British Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb, while in Pakistan last week, announced doubling of aid to Afghanistan to £286 million and released the first tranche of  £30 million of that to support Afghanistan’s regional neighbours including Pakistan. Thus, in a way the foreign aid has not only lined the pockets of Afghan gang lords and politicians but even the Pakistani generals and politicians.

Due to this complexity in the Afghan affairs and the recent announcements by senior Taliban leadership with regard to India puts Pakistan in a real quandary. Pakistan might also be concerned after a Taliban official Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai declared in a rare statement on foreign policy that “we give due importance to our political, economic and trade ties with India and we want these ties to continue. We are looking forward to working with India in this regard.”

Stanekzai is considered to have a soft corner for India, having trained at IMA, Dehradun during the 1980s, and it is Taliban officials like him and others who might be more pro-India, which puts Pakistan at unease along with the concern that one day the Taliban style thinking might spread through Pakistan also.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)

Insecurity In Afghan Region After US Withdrawal

The American forces left Afghanistan secretly to avoid any interference or casualties resulting from intelligence breach that might have forced the US head to revamp the policy of withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Biden administration was determined to pull out their forces from Afghanistan. Many analysts do believe that Talibans could never survive against the allied forces if they had not been funded and supported by the secret hands. It seems obvious when we see that the Talibans never lacked modern weapons, technology, dollars, food, backdoor diplomacy channels and other facilities.

The future of South Asian politics seems troublesome. The UK and other countries have consented to work with Taliban governments but US along with other powers advised Talibans not to capture Kabul and political power by force because it would be difficult for them to cooperate with them. This gesture shows advice to Talibans that if they capture power with consensus they, US and allies, would be ready to render cooperation.  

We see a big change in Talibans in that their vision seems mature. They have been occupying the rival territories without resorting to barbarity and brutality they had were infamous for in the past. That they are capturing bordering districts one by one without any resistance from the locals shows the terror of the Talibans. The Afghan masses cannot forget the ruthlessness of Talibans and fear it will recur for coming decades. Therefore they don’t trust the Ashraf Ghani administration to provide the safety and security. Even people working in Government are submitting to them gradually and it seems that Talibans will soon occupy the major portion of Afghanistan.

The US allies have planned to retain Kabul to counter Taliban if they prove a menace for the international movement or diplomacy. Ashraf Ghani weak government, extremist ideology and past inhumanity of Talibans present a fragile situation of law and order in Afghanistan.

If Talibans come to power, many refugees will flee to Pakistan. Many pro US families had already applied for immigration in the west because they expect barbarian treatment by the Talibans after the US withdrawal.

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The circumstances heading towards conflict create a new sense of insecurity in Afghanistan and South Asia. Afghan refugees in Afghanistan will cause trouble in Pakistan because Tehrik-I-Taliban Pakistan and anti-Shia and other Muslim sects can be targeted, befriended and encouraged towards violence by the troublemakers infiltrating in the guise of the refugees. There is empirical evidence that the same happened in the past.

The only difference is that past happened under the Soviet Union while the current scenario presents US and allied forces. The rest of the situation is same.

In India, the BJP government under Narendra Modi has been targeting Indian minorities. The citizen laws, agriculture bills, ghar wapsi, conspiracies against Churches, Mosques, Gurdwaras, Granth Sahib, etc. Throwing the blame on its neighbour and promoting the disinformation that all troubles in India come from Pakistan will ignite a new era of tussle between Indian and Pakistan. The Kashmir issue, Sikh issue and Muslim issue in India are expected to heighten to the extent that the region could see a new wave of agony and terrorism. The Taliban could start to exploit these as well.

The Talibans were approached by the Indians but they were not welcomed under a revengeful atmosphere as India had supported anti-Taliban internal and external forces during the past decades.

The Talibans have enjoyed a soft corner by Pakistan but the post-withdrawal situation is not favourable for Pakistan either. The US should have reached out to all the fighting factions in Afghanistan and secured their agreement on a coalition government which could bring peace in Afghanistan. Unfortunately the US forces abdicated from all influence in the government formation or maneuvering power. This has caused a major crisis in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and India lack diplomatic vision, depth and wisdom to cope with the alarming situation that is developing under these circumstances. For this reason, all share apprehensions because if Talibans get the support from Russia and western secret agencies as happened in the past two decades the South Asian countries will be unable to handle the situation. Resultantly, the region will be destabilised and go on fire.

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The BJP government may benefit from this hate-ridden situation but they will have to make many sacrifices because hatred cannot be alternative to peace. Peace and love are the only solution to eliminate hatred and violence.

Pakistan is the most vulnerable country. Past record shows that Afghan wars hit it to the extent that terrorist activities of the Afghan sponsored factions not only supplied drugs and weapons but also resulted in attacks on Pakistani military bases, schools, markets, Imam Barahs, Churches, Gurdwaras and Mosques. It seemed that Pakistan would never be able to restore peace in the country.

The Pakistan army had to plunge into war within Pakistan against the terrors and with 70,000 lives lost. The Army managed to control the criminals and terrorists and restored law and order situation. However once again the same woeful situation is emerging and the Pakistani policymakers are pondering over the situation.

The issue of the daughter of the Afghan ambassador and their return to Afghanistan as tacit protest has created a new chapter of confusion between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistani government believes that Indian hand is behind all these incidents because Pakistan cannot afford such tensions with its neighbouring Afghanistan. Such incidents are engineered by foreign secret hands.

Under these destabilizing and increasingly fragile circumstances, Pakistan and India should hold more and more sessions of dialogue to clarify things otherwise they will face another wave of havoc in the future.