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Can Pakistan’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman Mend Ties With the Taliban?

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Can Pakistan’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman Mend Ties With the Taliban?

The famously pro-Taliban politician is making a visit to Kabul at a tense time in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.

Can Pakistan’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman Mend Ties With the Taliban?

JUI(F) leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman (orange turban) attends a meeting with Afghanistan’s Prime Minister Hasan Akhund, Jan. 8, 2024.

Credit: X/ Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam Pakistan

Pakistan’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman operates as both a man of God and a political figure in a landscape marked by intricate politics and decades of religious conflict, where both aspects hold significant sway. And now he’s been tasked with a pivotal diplomatic mission.

Rehman is anticipated to persuade the Afghan Taliban to assist Pakistan in eradicating the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban). Islamabad accused the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan of providing safe haven to the TTP, which has stepped up its attacks in Pakistan. Rehman will face significant challenges, as the Afghan Taliban have consistently denied providing any aid to the TTP. In the meantime, Rahman’s own position on the Taliban and the TTP remains controversial.

On Sunday, Kabul underwent heightened security measures, leading to temporary closures of key roads, notably the primary road connecting Kabul International Airport to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Presidential Palace. This closure coincided with the visit by Rehman, famous for his pro-Taliban views. 

This visit marks Rehman’s first trip to Kabul since the Taliban took control in August 2021. He was accompanied by a delegation comprising Pakistani politicians and religious scholars.

For decades, Fazlur Rehman has stood as a prominent figure in both Pakistani religious circles and politics. Leading the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) party, a considerable force in Pakistan’s political landscape, Rahman has left a substantial mark. His enduring presence in Pakistani politics spans multiple tenures as a member of the National Assembly. 

The news of his arrival in Kabul on Sunday, however, stirred a wave of anger and uproar on Afghan social media. His well-known image, characterized by an orange and white turban along with a thick, white beard, was widely shared, triggering substantial backlash and indignation across various Afghan social media platforms.

Over the past two decades, Rehman has lent his support to the Taliban’s holy war against the pro-U.S. Afghan government and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Numerous religious schools or madrassas in Pakistan served as havens for future Taliban members, accumulating funds and garnering support from various religious groups across Pakistan. Rehman has remained a steadfast advocate for the Afghan Taliban in their resistance against the Afghan Republic and the U.S.-led coalition forces. Rahman embraces the belief that the Taliban’s struggle revolves around upholding Islamic values and enforcing Shariah, or Islamic law.

However, Rehman does not extend his support to the TTP, a group claiming to fight for the implementation of Shariah within Pakistan. Many Afghan observers on social media, as well as officials from the former republic, have criticized the discrepancy. 

Obaidullah Baheer, a former professor at the American University of Afghanistan, fumed on X, previously Twitter: “Everyone lost but those that profit from the destruction of Afghanistan. Jihad for us and politics for them has always been the motto of Mawlana Fazal Rehman and co.” Baheer was referring to the perception that Rehman supports jihad in Afghanistan – which resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and the country’s devastation – while denouncing violence and advocating for political struggle in Pakistan.

Baheer’s statement on X, was accompanied by a photo of Rehman in a meeting with Taliban authorities in Kabul, where the room was adorned with the white Taliban flag.

Amid the fervor among Afghans, notably the younger Taliban generation, echoing anti-Pakistan sentiments and embracing Afghan nationalism, select Taliban figures have issued reassuring words. Their sentiments echo the call for Afghans to embrace their age-old traditions of hospitality and grace toward guests, seeking to soothe the currents of discontent that surge through the nation.

There’s a strand of optimism woven among some Taliban authorities in Kabul, suggesting that the visit of this prominent Pakistani figure – a political luminary and religious leader with ties to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan since the 1980s – might pave the path for better bilateral relations. 

However, that does not mean the success of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s mission is guaranteed.

The relationship between the Taliban and the TTP is complex. While there might have been historical connections or overlapping ideologies, the Taliban leadership in the past has indicated varying stances regarding direct support for the group. 

The Taliban have previously expressed an interest in mediating peace talks between the Pakistani government and TTP leaders. Additionally, they have reiterated their commitment to ensuring that Afghan soil won’t be used as a launching pad for attacks against neighboring countries. This dual approach highlights their efforts to both facilitate peace discussions between factions in Pakistan and maintain assurances regarding Afghanistan’s non-aggression towards its neighbors.

But Pakistan has expressed serious security concerns and pointed fingers toward Afghanistan.

The government of Pakistan considers the TTP a militant extremist group operating primarily in the tribal areas of Pakistan along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Formed in 2007, it aims to enforce its strict interpretation of Shariah and opposes the Pakistani government, considering it corrupt and un-Islamic. 

The group has been responsible for numerous attacks, including suicide bombings, targeting civilians, government officials, security forces, and religious minorities. The Pakistani military has conducted various operations to counter the TTP’s influence and activities in the region.

In November last year, Pakistan’s interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar shared statistics highlighting a 60 percent rise in terrorist incidents and a 500 percent surge in suicide bombings since the Afghan Taliban assumed control in August 2021. 

Despite the Afghan Taliban’s rejection of these claims, Pakistani officials remain skeptical and have called for definitive actions against the TTP. Specifically, they demand the closure of TTP sanctuaries and the extradition of its leaders.

The government of Pakistan was among the first countries to officially recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan when it took control of Kabul in 1996. Pakistan extended formal recognition to the Taliban-led government shortly after it gained power.

This time, however, it has not only refrained from recognizing the Taliban government, but authorities in Islamabad have also consistently asserted that Afghan soil is being utilized by groups like the TTP to orchestrate operations against Pakistan. 

In a statement to the media at his residence on January 6, Rehman said that discussions regarding the TTP were only part of the agenda for his visit. He confirmed his desire to leverage his connections for positive gains in bilateral relations.

In his meeting with the Taliban government’s prime minister, Hasan Akhund, Rehman first congratulated the Taliban on their “great victory against foreign occupation.” He then said that the purpose of his trip was to “remove misunderstandings” between Afghanistan and Pakistan and find ways to move forward on political, trade, and development cooperation.

Rehman also planned to travel to Kandahar to meet Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, who rarely engages with foreign delegates.

Rehman has longstanding historical connections and influence within certain religious circles and political groups in Pakistan. He was a prominent figure in the Afghan Mujahideen movement during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Rehman, along with other religious leaders, played a role in supporting Afghan fighters against the Soviet forces.

It’s challenging to anticipate a response from the elusive Taliban supreme leader, who remains largely unknown to the Afghan public. However, it’s evident that the Taliban are striving to demonstrate that Afghanistan won’t harbor foreign militants, including the TTP, and are committed to honoring the agreements made with the United States before assuming power, pledging that Afghanistan will not pose a threat to other nations.

Concurrently, Pakistan is grappling with severe political and economic strains. An ongoing protest by thousands of Baloch men and women accuses the Pakistani government of extrajudicial killings and abductions. 

Meanwhile, ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan have also been demanding their rights. Pakistan’s security forces recently arrested one of the most prominent youth leaders of the movement, Manzoor Pashteen. 

Amid this turmoil, Pakistan is gearing up for an election, its uncertainty reflective of the unpredictable nature of regional politics.