Engagement with Taliban provides Pakistan strategic depth, opportunity to create pan-Islamic axis up to the Gulf

Engagement with the Taliban and the latter’s return to the driver’s seat in Afghanistan allows Pakistan to bring the Afghanistan issue to the forefront of the ‘South Asia regional security architecture’, writes Anuttama Banerji for South Asia Monitor

Anuttama Banerji Oct 05, 2021
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Pakistan ISI Chief Faiz Hameed in Kabul

The birth of Pakistan was not facile and Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s demand for a separate state was based on the “Two Nation Theory” that stipulated that India contained two distinct ‘nations’, Hindu and Muslim, and that these communities were incapable of living together.  When this line of thinking gained momentum across South Asia, the population of pre-partition India was driven into turmoil as thousands lost their lives while millions became refugees.

About 7.2 million Indian Muslims migrated to Pakistan, forming one-fourth of the population of West Pakistan. Similarly, about 5.5 million Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan for India.  

The Pakistan movement was spearheaded by leaders like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Mohammad Iqbal and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan established the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh in 1875 and tried to give credence to the idea of a modern Muslim community that combined religious and secular goals. Mohammad Iqbal, one of the finest Urdu poets,  spoke about the need for a “northwest Indian Muslim State” and was interested in the creation of an egalitarian community of Muslim believers within South Asia which he felt could not be given shape due to existing structural inequalities rampant within Hinduism. However, he did not visualize at the time the creation of a new country but was referring to a re-organization of Muslim majority areas in northwestern India into an autonomous unit within a single, loosely structured confederation.

The demand for Pakistan was a political ploy on the part of Jinnah, also called Qaid e Azam, to get some concessions for Muslims, which he failed to get from the Congress party.  Jinnah did not even have a robust economic policy for Pakistan and relied heavily on Islam as a source of mass mobilization in times of need.  

Homeland for Muslims

Pakistan came to mean different things to different people during its creation. However, what kept the idea of Pakistan afloat was the desire to have a ‘separate and distinct homeland’ that was common to all Muslims and the ‘slogan of Islam’ continued to mobilize Muslim modernists who attempted to revive the ‘real spirit of Islam”.

This newly western educated elite attempted to find an equilibrium between tradition and modernity and “continued to champion the cause of bringing about a rationalistic interpretation of Islam that could be compatible with the rapidly changing world around them” while being aware of their identity as Muslims. They came to realize that “Islam was God’s best and last religion".

Pakistani identity was shaped by claims of territoriality over regions like Jammu and Kashmir since Pakistan’s identity as a nation-state was closely linked to the acquisition of territories where Muslims were a majority in British India in 1947.  

Creation of Bangladesh

In 1971, the notion of territoriality gained further traction as the contours of the Pakistani state changed and its revisionist and irredentist nature led to fractured identities with the birth of Bangladesh, comprising areas in East Pakistan, in 1971.

The creation of Bangladesh acted as a catalyst in the use of Islam as an instrument of foreign policy in Pakistan in the next few decades. For example, Islam was used as a strategy to defend the country as then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto consolidated his hold over the nation by advancing the intellectual notion of “Islamic Socialism”. In simple terms, service to the nation was seen as service to the faith and the role of Islam in Pakistani society changed. From being a critical factor in the creation of the state, it now came to defend the state and its territories.

Similarly, Pakistan re-styled itself as a “custodian and guardian of the faith” as it hosted the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now called The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) summit in Lahore in 1974 and sought support for the “Islamic atomic bomb”.

Pakistan as a nation in a bid to strengthen its Islamic identity set its eyes on the Middle East for support as then-president General Zia-ul-Haq transformed Pakistani society by introducing a strict moral code of conduct including tight control of the school curriculum and religious education.  

Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy

This complex structure came to define Pakistani society of the time as the state became a “nation with many nationalisms” since the teleological process of state-making was incomplete.

It is within this context that one needs to understand Pakistan’s enduring engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since Pakistan views itself as the “homeland of South Asian Muslims” it feels it has a natural right to lead them across the region and beyond. Interestingly, entities like the Taliban assist Pakistan in this process as the Sunni group considers themselves the “vanguards of Islam” in the region. Though they may not fall within the bracket of trans-national jihadis (those waging a righteous war on behalf of Islam by considering it as a religious duty) like ISIS, the Taliban focuses on the practice of religiosity to propagate a puritanical form of Islam.

In the same lens, theoretical frameworks like the infamous “strategic depth theory” propagated by the likes of Pakistani General Mirza Aslam Beg give credence to this line of thinking. Pakistan views Afghanistan as a geographical entity that can provide it with much needed strategic depth to protect itself from the clutches of its rival India. While the Sino-Confucian alliance provides it strategic depth on the eastern frontier, engagement with entities like the Taliban provides it strategic depth on the western frontier thus enabling one to understand that the age-old strategic depth theory in Pakistan’s case cannot be seen purely from a secular geostrategic lens but needs to be viewed from the narrow religious lens. It is a strategic policy tool that is being used by the Pakistani state to meet its policy objectives in Afghanistan.

Engagement with the Taliban and the latter’s return to the driver’s seat in Afghanistan allows Pakistan to bring the Afghanistan issue to the forefront of the ‘South Asia regional security achitecture’. While Afghanistan has traditionally been a peripheral issue in India-Pakistan affairs so far, the return of the Taliban ensures Afghanistan can no longer play the role of a buffer state in the region and it is certain it will emerge as a new theatre of geopolitical conflict for both India and Pakistan in South Asia in the coming months and years.

It also provides Pakistan the opportunity to create a pan-Islamic axis up to the Gulf via Afghanistan. The opportunity to accomplish the latter gives Pakistan a potential geopolitical advantage in the region for it can calibrate its options and responses carefully and engage with Islamists from these countries and carve a niche for itself at a time when India is gaining strategic depth for itself.  Islamabad can potentially strengthen its position as the true ‘protector of Islam’ and appease its domestic audiences as well in the process especially at a time when the Pakistani economy is in the doldrums. 

Thus, another Great Game in Afghanistan has just begun.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at anuttama92@gmail.com and tweets @BanerjiAnuttama)

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