Pressure on Pakistan’s ‘University of Jihad’ to Preach Peace

Updated on
  • Afghanistan’s top diplomat in Pakistan woos Taliban supporter
  • Hope that Chinese investment gives Beijing leverage to end war

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan has visited the so-called ‘University of Jihad’ so often that he’s become good friends with the hardline cleric who runs it.

Omar Zakhilwal’s unusual pilgrimage to the Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasa near the northwestern city of Peshawar is central to his efforts to convince the Taliban-supporting school to preach peace. It’s a longer-term, non-military approach to the conflict that envisages a tripling of trade flows between Pakistan-Afghanistan, the departure of U.S. troops and better military and intelligence cooperation.

Omar Zakhilwal

Photographer: Farooq Naeem/AFP via Getty Images

The bespectacled diplomat stressed in three separate visits since December that the influential preacher Maulana Sami-ul-Haq -- whose seminary trained Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Akhtar Mohammad Mansour -- had a responsibility to end a conflict that is killing innocent Muslims.

“I didn’t have any reservations,” said Zakhilwal in an interview at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad of his visits to the controversial school. “It’s an obligation, a religious obligation, that he uses his influence and religious credentials to lessen that suffering.”

Longest War

Pakistan has long been accused of allowing Afghan Taliban fighters sanctuary within its borders. Zakhilwal’s appeal to ul-Haq underscores the complexity of ending the 16-year war in Afghanistan and the need the need for a political solution that draws in Taliban fighters who have fought an insurgency against U.S.-backed forces. With China spending more than $50 billion on planned infrastructure projects in Pakistan, he also hopes Beijing may use its economic leverage to push Islamabad toward a peace deal.

It won’t be easy. America’s longest war is destabilizing South Asia and costing Washington roughly $23 billion per year. It’s holding back economic growth in Pakistan, the region’s second-largest economy, although a sustained crackdown by Pakistan’s military has gone some way to improving security and boosting confidence in the economy.

The Taliban, however, is unlikely to come to the table because they believe the Kabul government is weak and U.S. strategy is in disarray. Last week, Senator John McCain said U.S. President Donald Trump has “no strategy at all” amid a State Department policy review. 

Zakhilwal is “doing this because he thinks it offers some opportunity at a time when other alternatives really look very unpromising,” said Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who previously advised the U.S. government on policy in the region. “The best he’s going to get is a patchwork solution with local ceasefires in some areas. The metric for success will be much more unclear. Because it’s not going to be peace or war. It will be peace and war.”

Uneasy Neighbors

Although Islamabad has cracked down on militants targeting Pakistan, the U.S. accuses the country of supporting insurgents who strike inside Afghanistan and India, including U.S.-designated terrorist group the Haqqani Network. Both Pakistan’s government and its military have consistently denied they have given sanctuary or support to the militants.

After an explosion killed at least 150 people in Kabul on May 31, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Pakistan was waging an “undeclared war of aggression” against his country, an accusation Islamabad said was “unwarranted.”

The crater left by the truck bomb attack in Kabul on May 31.

Photographer: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Zakhilwal said relations have improved, despite Ghani’s comments, noting Pakistan had stopped forcing Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan. However, the larger issue of Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban remains unresolved.

“Pakistan can do more to use whatever influence they have on the Taliban,” said Zakhilwal, a former Afghan finance minister. “For peace with the Taliban, Pakistan has some influence. Direct interaction could be certainly helpful.”

Chinese Investments

Zakhilwal is also hoping Beijing will assert “influence over Pakistan,” pushing it toward peace in order to secure a better investment climate for billions worth of projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

“China could only be genuinely interested in peace in Afghanistan for its investments in Pakistan,” he said. “China is a next-door neighbor to both countries. Instability in any of these countries does not serve China’s interest.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to faxed questions.

Afghanistan-Pakistan trade -- totaling only $1.6 billion in 2016 -- has declined, and Pakistan’s efforts to construct a fence along the entire border could impact hundreds of millions worth of informal trade, Zakhilwal said. The ambassador added that he is trying to “compartmentalize trade” in discussions with Pakistani officials to potentially triple trade flows, helping to reduce the poverty that drives people toward militancy and the opium trade, of which Afghanistan is the world’s biggest producer. 

“If we have lawlessness there will be drugs,” he said.

Military Influence

Zakhilwal hopes preachers such as ul-Haq can use their influence for peace and said he “certainly has done things which show he wants to be helpful.”

“Whatever the influence of Maulana is, I do believe it could be used for peace and stability in Afghanistan,” he said, using the preacher’s honorific. “I put him on the phone with President Ghani in one of my meetings.”

Analysts aren’t sure that will work. Carnegie’s Tellis said Pakistan’s goal continues to be a weak and “subordinate” Afghanistan. And current battlefield commanders oppose any talks while American soldiers remain in Afghanistan, said Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“When Kabul is struggling, when Washington is struggling with its own Afghan policy, why should the Taliban come to the table?” Basit said. “If anyone has influence, it’s the Pakistani military establishment.”

— With assistance by Kamran Haider, and Peter Martin

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