03/13/2014 02:19 pm ET Updated May 13, 2014

'Vying for Allah's Vote'

Amidst tensions in Europe, the "rebalance" to Asia, and high-stakes diplomacy and conflict in the Middle East, the question of stability in Pakistan continues to shadow Washington. Specifically, as the United States draws down its forces in Afghanistan this year and scales back its engagement in South Asia, how will Pakistan tackle its insecurity that has had tragic domestic consequence and still has regional and global ramifications?

Attempts to answer this question have principally led to extensive scrutiny of the intentions, capabilities, and actions of Pakistan's military, civilian government, and a hydra of militant groups. What has largely been missing is a similar scrutiny of its Islamic parties -- a vociferous and influential minority in Pakistan's volatile political landscape.

A new book titled Vying for Allah's Vote seeks to plug that gap.

From Washington's perspective, Pakistan's Islamic parties seem like political gadflies that agitate, obfuscate, and obstruct -- fueled by anti-American sentiment -- yet have largely failed at the ballot box. The prime data point: the Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) -- a broad coalition of religious parties -- that captured 58 seats in the National Assembly in 2002 and formed a provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was promptly ousted in the next election. No Islamic party has replicated its electoral high since.

Yet ballots can be deceiving. Pakistan's Islamic parties have long wielded influence through street politics; political and, at times, ideological alliances with the army; and support to militant groups. They are key players that merit continued study. Vying for Allah's Vote examines their origins, ideologies, bases of support, and relationship with extremism and civilian rule.

Undoubtedly, though, the notion of yet another book on Pakistan will elicit some quiet groans in Washington. Tired of trying to understand Pakistan after a roller-coaster relationship since 9/11, most policymakers are focused on a responsible draw down that primarily protects U.S. counter-terrorism gains and interests. Yet for those taking the long-term view on the need for broad and continued engagement with Pakistan, the book yields three key insights.

First, it explains the typography of Islamic parties in Pakistan and seeks to crack a monolithic understanding of them. Under the umbrella of "Islamic" parties, it distinguishes between "Islamist" parties (Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam) and "Muslim Democrat" parties (Pakistan Muslim League) and places them on a "shariah-secular continuum."

The book describes how these parties continually shift on the spectrum "from those who believe Pakistan should be governed by Islamic law with little or lay person's input to those who believe that religious authority has no place in governance." Although the lack of a clear consensus on what it means to be governed by Islamic law complicates drawing comparisons among the parties, the spectrum usefully captures the phenomenon of religious modulation in politics.

Second, the book sheds light on the motivation of Pakistan's Islamic parties. It describes their instrumentalism -- from condoning violence to taking positions contrary to their platform to allying with secular parties -- in pursuit of political success. As one senior JUI leader puts it: "[t]he party has religious concerns, of course, but these do not blind us to practical matters. When we have rubbish piling up that must be hauled away, we don't say 'Allah will provide.'"

Honing in on this strain of practicality, the author notes: "[r]ecognizing that Pakistan's Islamic parties are as tethered to practical political considerations as is any other party has huge implications for our understanding of what drives political extremism and how to create incentives for moderation."

While this insight is compelling, its implications for U.S. policymakers are not taken to their logical conclusion. For example, the author tantalizingly concludes that "if properly incentivized," Pakistan's Islamic political parties could be "useful allies in the effort to allay and limit the spread of violent Islamism." Notwithstanding the feasibility of the U.S. making "allies" out of such parties, what might these incentives be and at what cost?

Third, given the influence and instrumentality of Islamist parties, the book recommends greater U.S. engagement with them. The debate on political engagement in Pakistan has largely focused on expanding beyond the military to civilian political parties to empower the latter. The book thus valuably pushes for expanding beyond a sub-set of such parties to include Islamist ones: "[p]olitical officers in Pakistan should be visiting religious scholars, madrasah, principals, political activists (including hard-line leaders from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and the Jamaat-e-Islami), and student leaders." Yet while such engagement is necessary, the book does not address the related constraints U.S. diplomats must navigate from security considerations and language barriers to an inability to fully engage in Islamic discourse.

In short, Vying for Allah is an insightful primer on how Washington must better understand and engage Pakistan's Islamic parties in formulating an effective post-2014 policy -- one that should seek to advance a stable, democratic, and prosperous Pakistan. Yet no matter how deft U.S. diplomacy becomes, the reader is left wondering how do these parties who range from muted to supportive of extremist groups independently conceive of their role and obligations in addressing Pakistan's troubles?

Pakistan's new National Internal Security Policy, for example, outlines a comprehensive strategy that includes mounting an "ideological response" to "extremism, sectarianism, terrorism, and militancy." Irrespective of U.S. action and assuming that Islamabad is willing and able to follow through on implementing such policies, will Pakistan's Islamist parties lend meaningful support or continue to instrumentally vie for their own interests and for power inside and outside the ballot box?