Supporters of the Pakistani religious group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) attend an election campaign rally in Karachi, Pakistan, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024.

Supporters of the Pakistani religious group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) attend an election campaign rally in Karachi, Pakistan, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. (Fareed Khan/AP)

While Pakistan’s recent election may not meet all Western standards of perfection, it certainly serves as a demonstration of democracy in action. Its ramifications could potentially influence its neighbor, Afghanistan, particularly if the Pakistani military relinquishes its subtle support for the Taliban.

Among the various forms of battle, a war of hatred, suspicion and envy is just as pernicious as battles fought on traditional fields. This is precisely the conflict ongoing between the Afghans and the Pakistani security establishment.

Afghans accuse their neighbor Pakistan of pursuing a duplicitous policy toward the Afghan people. While ostensibly endorsing democracy and elections within its own borders, Pakistan is alleged to support the Taliban, a group seemingly disinclined to let Afghans go to voting polls to select their leaders.

Pakistan held elections amid economic, social and political scandals that led to the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Like many elections around the world, Pakistan’s was not exempt from accusations of rigging, particularly involving interference from the military to manipulate the results in its favor.

But the allegations of corruption, misuse of power and voting fraud are not a new phenomenon, and it’s seen in many developing nations.

In his book “The Nine Lives of Pakistan,” Declan Walsh takes the reader into Pakistan’s violent political and social order, with “fraught elections, assassinations and military rule.”

But pessimism aside, the glass in Pakistan’s political spectrum now seems half-full. Pakistanis went to the polls to cast their votes with no major reports of violence. To give the military its fair share of credit, the generals showed a level of civility by not calling the troops, as they did in the past.

As an Afghan-born American, I find it hard to understand a simple fact: Why does Pakistan’s security establishment and Islamist parties now espouse free elections, freedom of speech, democracy and polarization for Pakistan, while rejecting these very same ideals for Afghanistan?

During his recent visit to Kabul, Maulana Fazul Rahan — leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party and a staunch supporter of the Taliban — conveyed to Afghan media that the world should not impose its ideology on the Taliban, including the concept of elections. That’s in stark contrast to his party’s participation in his own country’s election.

According to the Afghan media, he is said to have leveraged his longtime friendship with the Afghan Taliban by striking a deal with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whose leaders are said to be ensconced in Afghanistan, to refrain from disrupting the Pakistan elections. The TTP allegedly pledged not to attack the rallies before the election. But the Taliban refuse to honor the same principles for elections in their own country.

Undoubtedly, the Taliban fear elections because they know such freedoms would lead to a rejection of their presence. They know their rise to power was not the result of popular choice, but rather stemmed from an agreement struck in the 2020 Doha Agreement, signed between the United States and the Taliban. This agreement stipulated that the Taliban would not attack U.S. forces as they withdrew.

In the Taliban’s view, the concept of sovereignty belongs to Allah alone, and any system of government that allows people to make laws or choose leaders is considered a violation of this principle. They argue that the Islamic system of governance should be based on the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, with religious scholars (ulama) serving as the guardians of Islamic law and morality.

The predominantly mono-ethnic Taliban, primarily composed of Pashtuns from the southern region, notably Kandahar, wield Islam as a tool for their hegemony, and free elections would bring an ax to their power. They can’t be happy about the new election freedoms now evident in their neighbor Pakistan.

The Taliban and their ultra-nationalist elite, referred to as the “necktie Taliban” by Afghans, have constructed a governance that has failed.

It’s a stark contrast to the 20 years of American presence, when Afghans exercised their right to select their leaders by participating in elections. During a private visit to Afghanistan in 2005, I bore witness to men and women, eligible to vote, flocking to the polls to cast their vote, which the Taliban disputed, and in some instances they cut off the fingers of some who participated in voting.

Despite all its shortcomings, Pakistan is experimenting with democracy and learning to respect the will of its citizens. Pakistan has come a long way from its past of military takeovers.

No matter who won the election, Pakistan should make a bona fide attempt to change its policy toward its neighbor Afghanistan by siding with the people, rather than a group that has no legitimate right to rule. I am sure Pakistan will benefit more from an elected government.

Bina Shah writes in a New York Times opinion piece that healthy democracy seems more like an El Dorado that slips farther out of reach with each election.

Yet despite all this, it’s difficult to fully let go of the democratic idea. The train keeps running in Pakistan, picking up hopeful new passengers along the way.

I call upon Pakistan’s newly elected government to let this train move on, to cross into Afghanistan, picking up more and more passengers. A peaceful, democratically elected government in Afghanistan that connects Pakistan to central Asia is more in Pakistan’s geo-economic long-term interests than that of supporting a group like the Taliban.

Wahab Raofi, an Afghan-born American, is a graduate of Kabul Law School. He formerly worked as an interpreter for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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