Fearing a possible backlash from the Taliban, Pakistan has quietly dropped efforts to obtain a fatwa against carrying out suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Since being removed from power by US-led forces in 2001, the Taliban have waged an armed insurgency against Kabul and international troops, one underpinned by a strong religious ideology. The hardline teachings of the religious duty to carry out a violent struggle against an occupying force have motivated many to take up arms. Nearly 17 years after the invasion, as the US is looking to negotiate a long-term settlement with its stubborn opponent, many looking to degrade the powerful force see a religious decree from prominent Pakistani religious figures as necessary for talks to be successful.
In January last year, religious clerics in Pakistan issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, condemning acts of terrorism in the country as un-Islamic. The decree was endorsed by over 1,800 religious scholars from different schools of Islamic jurisprudence and was hailed as an important step towards curbing extremism and terrorism.
The fatwa was notable for the number of clerics who had signed in the past, been seen as supportive of the Afghan Taliban and were otherwise outspoken critics of liberalism and the West. Among them was Hamid-ul-Haq, the son of a cleric widely regarded as the father of the Afghan Taliban because of the number of high profile militants – including Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar – who graduated from his seminary in Pakistan's Peshawar.
Hoping to discredit the Taliban, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani criticised the ruling and said it should not have been limited to Pakistan.
"If they [Islamic principles] extend to all [of the world] of Islam, then it [the Pakistani fatwa] should first and foremost be implemented in relation to Afghanistan," Mr Ghani said.
The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement, held power in the country from 1996 to 2001 and enforced their strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The group has long had roots that stretch over the border to Pakistan, with many Taliban leaders graduating from religious schools in Pakistan during their rise fighting the Soviet Union’s invasion of the land-locked country between 1979 and 1989.
Islamabad, as well as being among the first countries to recognise Taliban rule in 1996, has strong military links through Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence. In December, Pakistan used its influence to pave the way for the first direct talks between the US and the Taliban in Abu Dhabi since 2001.
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During a visit to Kabul in October 2017, as the details of the fatwa were being agreed in the months before it was issued, Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa promised the Afghan government he would pursue a widened ruling. He said they would look for a ruling that covered Afghanistan, according to Mohammad Amir Rana, the director of an Islamabad-based think-tank Pak Institute for Peace Studies.
“Kabul believes the Taliban would lose significant influence if Pakistani scholars issued a decree against their armed resistance,” Mr Rana said.
However, after discussions at a meeting in Karachi a month after Gen Bajwa’s visit to Kabul, Pakistan’s religious clerics balked at the proposal.
“They unanimously decided not to intervene in internal affairs of Afghanistan,” said Mufti Muhammad Naeem, chancellor of Jamia Binoria International, a Deobandi seminary in Karachi.
Mr Naeem said he was initially in favour of the proposed decree but later changed his mind, fearing it could turn the Taliban against Pakistan.
“We did it for our country, but we can’t do it for Afghanistan,” he said of the first decree approved in January 2018. “If Afghan imams are not willing to issue a decree against jihad in their country, why should we do it? Also, Pakistan enjoys considerable influence over Afghan Taliban, so we don’t want to diminish it by issuing a decree against them.”
A delegation of Afghan religious scholars then visited Pakistan in October last year seeking to convince the clerics of a need to outlaw Pakistanis travelling to Afghanistan for militancy but that effort proved futile.
"Afghan scholars briefed us about their constitution which they claimed is Islamic in nature, and sought our support to issue a decree against the jihad," Tahir Ashrafi, President of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, told The National.
But the Pakistani clerics demurred. In the past, many of them had issued fatwas in favour of the Afghan Taliban and their struggle against Nato forces. “It was now difficult for them to recede from their positions,” said Mr Ashrafi.
A key difference between the Pakistan and Afghan contexts in relation to the proposed fatwa was the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, which the Taliban and many Afghans consider invaders, Mr Ashrafi said.
The Taliban bases its claims to legitimacy on a narrative of a religiously justified struggle against foreign occupation and would likely resist an attempt by Pakistan to issue a fatwa against it, according to Mr Rana.
Fearing a loss of influence over the Taliban, by late last year the Pakistani authorities had decided to quietly drop the issue.
Pakistan’s foreign office declined to comment but reports indicate that at some point in November last year, Islamabad quietly told their counterparts in Kabul that the fatwa was off and it seems, at least for now, that whole idea has been shelved.