Why the Afghan 'peace conference' idea keeps bombing
For the past few months, The Long War Journal has been tracking the progress of a proposed regional ulema conference that was supposed to result in a fatwa against suicide bombings. The Afghan High Peace Council's initiative met first with approval by Pakistan, then resistance from the Taliban, and most recently, a refusal by Pakistani clerics to participate in the conference. Moreover, the head of Pakistan's Ulema Council, Alama Tahir Ashrafi, declared last week that suicide attacks are permissible in "occupied" Muslim lands that do not have the atomic bomb.
Ashrafi's statement provoked immediate condemnation from Afghan religious and political officials, from NATO, and from other quarters. He attempted to backtrack and soften his tone the following day, but his initial statement was widely perceived as showing that Pakistan and the Taliban have similar views of Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, Head Pakistani cleric backpedals on suicide attacks.]
The Afghanistan Analysts Network has been following these developments too, and last week posted an excellent article by Borhan Osman on the current state of affairs. Osman talked to Ashrafi and to senior members of Pakistan's two main religious parties, the Jamaat-e Islami (JI) and Jamiat-e Ulama-e Islam of Fazl-ur-Rahman (JUI-F). (Both the JI and the JUI-F support the Taliban; see LWJ report, Pro-Taliban Pakistani Islamist leader targeted in suicide attack, and Threat Matrix report, Pakistani minister ♥ the Taliban.) The lengthy AAN article's key points are summarized below, but the article is worth reading in its entirety.
The AAN article describes Pakistani Ulema Council chief Ashrafi as basically a hardline Islamist who was appointed last month by Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to head the Pakistani ulema delegation on the peace conference issue, arguably because he had shown more moderate tendencies in Pakistan recently regarding issues such as the polio vaccination campaign, the blasphemy charge against a mentally handicapped girl, and the assassinations of Pakistani politicians Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, who had both condemned Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
The article points out, however, that Ashrafi's hardline Islamist ties are longstanding. It quotes a Friday Times article stating that Ashrafi was "a passionate jihadi in the 1980s" who still carries bullet and shrapnel injuries from combat in Afghanistan with Harkatul Jihad Islami; Jalaluddin Haqqani was one of the group's commanders at the time.
The Friday Times article, which was published on Jan. 3 -- several weeks before Ashrafi's inflammatory declaration condoning suicide attacks in "occupied" Muslim lands -- describes the Pakistan Ulema Council, which Ashrafi has headed since 2008, as follows:
The PUC is also opposed to suicide attacks inside Pakistan, but justifies such attacks as a war tactic in Afghanistan and Palestine. In Afghanistan, it believes the Taliban's struggle against the foreign troops is jihad. It also claims the credit for securing the release of more than 3,100 Pakistani militants from different jails in Afghanistan.
In this light, the only surprising thing about Ashrafi's recent endorsement of suicide attacks was the fact that the Afghans were apparently hoping he would come out differently on the issue. Ashrafi has been known, as the AAN article notes, to be supportive of both the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda. "In 2007, he bestowed the religious title of Saifullah or Sword of Allah on Osama bin Laden in response to a British knighthood for the author of the novel The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie," it states.
As for the views of other senior Pakistani religious figures on the issue of suicide attacks and the proposed peace conference, Jamaat-e Islami deputy chief Siraj ul-Haq told AAN: "As long as there are NATO forces in Afghanistan, none of our ulama would take part in such a conference." Similarly, JUI-F provincial chief Senator Maulana Muhammad Khan Shirani said: "It wasn't a mullahs' fatwa that initiated the war and therefore it will not end with a fatwa either."
The plans for the proposed regional conference on suicide bombings, also called a peace conference, have been canceled due to the lack of cooperation from the Pakistani ulema, Osman writes. The conference, if it takes place at all, is now envisioned by the Afghan High Peace Council as simply being "a meeting of Afghan ulama and later one with clerics from different Muslim nations."
Osman attributes the failure of the peace conference idea to the long-held and still prevalent view among Pakistani clerics that "foreign forces in Afghanistan are occupiers, with Karzai only as a figurehead, and that the Taliban are fighting a freedom fight or jihad." The author also observes that the Pakistani clerics' "rhetoric on the peace process and negotiations is almost the same as that of the Taliban," a similarity we have also noted.
Osman concludes: "On the basis of this situation on the ground, Afghanistan's efforts to solicit the Pakistani Islamists -- who wield a potentially huge influence on the Taliban -- to change their longstanding views are likely to be in vain."
Still, you can't blame the Afghans for trying, despite the odds. At the very least, the push for a regional religious conference to prohibit suicide attacks has helped to illuminate the true nature of some of the protagonists in this long war.