There’s no denying that the Islamists’ brutish and austere vision of justice is foreign to the sensibilities of modern minds in the region and the Western world. Unlike Egypt’s Muslim Brothers, the Taliban are not willing to endorse the establishment of a democracy in Afghanistan. Their stated desire is to establish a theocracy where personal piety and religious knowledge would be the most important criteria for attaining public office. Nonetheless, giving the Islamists an autonomous region would force them to prove their political bona fides.
Within Pakistan’s conservative establishment, there is a persistent folklore of Taliban justice: They claim that the Islamists reduced crime and brought a pristine sense of order to the frontier. The same is true for conservative Afghans who recall the incorruptibility of the Taliban mullahs, despite their draconian punishments. Giving the Islamists an autonomous region would put those memories to the test. If the West allowed the Taliban to shoulder responsibility for a self-claimed “sinless state,” the Islamists could no longer blame their destructive indiscretions on the vicissitudes of war. They could no longer earn money through the drug trade — currently, the Taliban encourage opium cultivation as an instrument of war, earning an estimated $400 million per year — because one of the claims to piety during their heyday was a ban on opium. And when they are responsible for their own economy, they will realize the need for a broader education system than their meager madrasas — those religious institutions in their current form cannot produce doctors or any other professionals needed for a functioning contemporary society.
Indeed, once the Taliban are responsible for maintaining order and developing a functional society that they can take pride in, they will most likely compromise on many international policy issues. (One need only look back to 1997, when Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government sent delegations to the United States to charm their ostensible enemy into negotiating a pipeline deal.) Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that, once in charge of a government, the Taliban would undergo an organic process of moderation, learning to safeguard basic human rights in an explicitly Islamic framework. Indeed, they could be assisted by international entities such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which has adopted a series of conventions to develop means of addressing terrorism in states that embrace sharia law.
The silent majority of Pakistanis and Afghans who are intimidated by the Islamists would also be relieved of all residents who are clamoring to live under Islamist rule. Devotees of the Taliban myth could simply be directed to the autonomous region, leaving the rest of the country free to develop its own modernist interpretation of Islam. Similarly, those in the frontier who would prefer a secular or modernist Islamic state should be allowed to migrate to the other side.
It may sound far-fetched, but there’s actually precedent for such a radical solution. The world just witnessed a referendum in Sudan to end a terrible war through partition; a decade earlier, East Timor had to be divided up by the international community. In both cases, religion proved to be among the irreconcilable differences for the local populations, just as it is in Afghanistan and Pakistan today. (For all practical purposes, the radical Islam of the Taliban and their allies is an entirely different religion from the moderate Islam that prevails elsewhere in the region.) When you’re dealing with absolutist ideologies, sometimes a divorce is the only solution possible. Islamists are also quite amenable to the process of a referendum as a policy tool, given their repeated call for referenda in areas such as Kashmir.