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Afghanistan’s Islamic Future

Afghan Islamic scholars in a gathering.
Afghan Islamic scholars in a gathering.
As NATO troops wind down more than a decade of combat operations in Afghanistan, it is increasingly likely that some version of political Islam will be central to politics and governance in the country for the foreseeable future. Despite the violence that has marked Afghan Islamist factions in recent years, their inclusion may yet help pave the way to a more peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

For centuries, Afghans practiced a moderate version of Islam that emphasized religious observance but remained marginal to politics. Islam was invoked to mobilize Afghans for empire building and defeating foreign invasions. Until a few decades ago, political Islam was not a source of extremism and violence.

The modern Islamist movement in Afghanistan emerged in response to the rise of communist factions in the 1960s and ’70s. Pakistan, Afghanistan's eastern neighbor, tapped into the potential of this nascent force, which was led by students and teachers of Kabul University.

Islamabad's support, Western backing, and communist persecution propelled the once marginal Muslim Youth Organization into a robust guerilla organization that resisted the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Its leaders and members became holy warriors, or mujahedeen.

Once in power in Kabul after the fall of Afghan socialism in 1992, the mujahedeen evolved into factional warlords in a fratricidal civil war. What eventually emerged was the Taliban, a new breed of rural hardline Islamists.

The Taliban’s campaign to restore order in the mid-1990s attracted support in some Afghan regions, and they crushed most mujahedeen factions. However, they failed to deliver effective governance and were hijacked by Arab, Pakistani, and Central Asian extremists whose actions ultimately led to their downfall in late 2001.

Twelve years later, a mujahedeen-dominated Afghan government is struggling with a resurgent Taliban. To ensure future stability, these two major currents of Afghan Islamists will need to make peace. Additionally, Afghanistan’s leaders must reverse past mistakes of excluding Taliban factions in governance and give them a stake in the political process.

The international community can support these efforts by encouraging Kabul to engage former mujahedeen and the Taliban's current leadership – at province, district, and tribal levels -- and to enter a constructive peace process in governing Afghanistan together.

Economic and partisan stakes in the current political system coaxed former mujahedeen warlords to accept new roles as politicians and administrators. Similar incentives for Taliban leaders will considerably weaken their military zeal and prevent them from turning into jihadist proxies for Al-Qaeda or regional states.

Pakistan, too, plays a role. The imperative of domestic security must compel Islamabad to back intra-Afghan reconciliation wholeheartedly, and Pakistani leaders must deliver on recent promises to unequivocally back the elected Afghan government and refrain from supporting armed factions.

Inclusion and commitment to Afghanistan's independence are not new concepts to the Taliban. Their literature indicates that while they are still committed to creating a more "Islamic" Afghanistan, the movement has abandoned moves to recreate an "Islamic Emirate" and no longer aspires to promote jihad across borders.

Taliban leaders now need to apply the lessons learned from Islamist movements elsewhere to chart their new path. Former mujahedeen enemies can convince the Taliban to strive for the implementation of Islamic laws through a peaceful political process, in the same way that many Pakistani lslamist political parties, whose leaders can be considered Taliban mentors, have publically shunned violence and entered into coalitions as a means to achieve their political goals.

The best way forward for Afghanistan’s Islamist factions is to the path to reconciliation. Indeed, many former Taliban leaders have already integrated into the Afghan political system by becoming lawmakers, governors, and peace negotiators. Hizb-e Islami, a separate insurgent faction, has largely been reintegrated into the new Afghanistan. The move into the political mainstream requires a commitment to peace and a desire to leave sanctuaries in Pakistan in return for a cooperative future in Afghanistan.

In return, the Afghan government must accept that the Taliban cannot reinvent themselves unless past grievances are addressed and they are accepted as a political movement with legitimate aspirations. Establishing a robust judiciary will be key to enticing the Taliban, as justice is central to Islamic notions of governance. Following Afghanistan’s presidential elections in April, the new government should make creating a new judiciary a national priority.

The future of Islamism in Afghanistan is fraught with challenges. But if handled properly, political Islam could instead become a mainstay of Afghan politics and a guarantor of stability. The political future of Afghanistan need not reflect its troubled past.

Muhammad Amin Mudaqiq is the director of RFE/RL Radio Mashaal. Abubakar Siddique is an RFE/RL correspondent. The views are the authors' own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.