Turtle Bay

Exclusive: Russia scuttles new U.N. Taliban plan

A Russian official told Turtle Bay today that his government will not remove Taliban militants from a U.N. list of individuals once suspected of engaging in terrorist activities, thwarting U.S. and U.N. aims to entice so-called moderate Taliban to make peace or switch sides in the Afghan war and support the Western-backed government of Hamid ...

A Russian official told Turtle Bay today that his government will not remove Taliban militants from a U.N. list of individuals once suspected of engaging in terrorist activities, thwarting U.S. and U.N. aims to entice so-called moderate Taliban to make peace or switch sides in the Afghan war and support the Western-backed government of Hamid Karzai.

"Our position hasn’t changed and we can say we are against the delisting of the Taliban," Ruslan Bakhtin, a spokesman for the Russian mission to the United Nations, said in a interview. "It continues to be a terrorist organization and it continues to carry out terrorist activities on Afghan soil." [UPDATE: Russia is now moving to delist five former Taliban officials.]

Afghanistan and the United Nations have been appealing to the U.N. Security Council in recent weeks to lift sanctions on a handful of Taliban officials who are committed to renouncing violence. The move, which is backed by the United States, is viewed by Kai Eide, the U.N.’s top envoy in Afghanistan, as a critical first step toward opening the door to political talks with the Taliban.

Earlier this month, Afghanistan’s U.N. ambassador Zahir Tanin called directly on the 15-nation U.N. Security Council to delist Taliban combatants who are "willing to renounce violence and join the peace process."

For years, Moscow has opposed U.S. and European attempts to reward NATO-friendly former Taliban militants by easing sanctions on them. In 2007, Russian blocked an effort by the United States and the Dutch to delist Karzai’s governor of Uruzgan, Abdul Hakim Monib, a former deputy minister of frontier affairs in the prior Taliban government who was said to be a critical asset in the U.S.- led war on terror.

As I reported at the time:

The U.N. Security Council first imposed sanctions on the Taliban in October 1999 for providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden and for refusing to surrender him to face trial in New York for masterminding the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Monib and more than 100 other Taliban leaders were placed on a sanctions list in January 2001, a year before he broke ranks with the Islamic movement and joined forces with Hamid Karzai, the Washington-backed president of Afghanistan.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States ushered through resolutions that expanded the list of sanctioned people to suspected al-Qaeda members. The measures included a travel ban, an arms embargo and a prohibition on the direct or indirect provision of funds or economic resources to Monib and 489 other people and groups.

But the Security Council has been slow to adjust to the changing political realities in Afghanistan, where at least 19 former Taliban officials have reconciled with Karzai’s government. It also cannot agree to remove other people from the list, even after they have died or have convinced the United States that they should not be considered enemies.

Afghan experts said that they were puzzled by Russia’s position, saying that Moscow has been generally helpful to NATO by allowing overflight access over their territory. "I don’t think it has to do with sticking it to us," said J. Alexander Thier, an expert on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He said it may reflect Russia’s traditional support for the Taliban’s greatest Afghan rival, the Northern Alliance. But he said that "would be pure speculation."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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