The South Asia Channel

Call the Taliban What They Are — Terrorists

The White House needs a clear characterization of the Taliban.

An Afghan policeman keeps watch at the s
An Afghan policeman keeps watch at the site of a suicide car bomb blast near the Indian embassy in Kabul on October 8, 2009. The Indian embassy was the target of a massive bomb blast in central Kabul, a senior Indian diplomat told AFP. The diplomat said the blast took place outside the wall of the embassy on Interior Ministry Road in central Kabul's heavily fortified diplomatic district. Asked if he believed the Indian Embassy was the target of what appeares to have been a massive suicide car bomb attack, the Indian diplomat said: "Precisely." Speaking on condition of anonymity he said that there were no casulaties. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell argues: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” Recent U.S. government characterizations of the Afghan Taliban are reminiscent of Orwell’s cuttlefish metaphor. When it comes to describing the Taliban, the U.S. government has been “spurting out ink” rather than dealing with the inconvenient truth: the Taliban are a terrorist organization — even by the U.S. government’s own definition.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz sparked the recent Taliban characterization controversy when he tried to make the case that the Taliban are “armed insurgents,” not “terrorists.” During the same press conference on Jan. 28, Schultz attempted to differentiate between King Abdullah’s willingness to consider the exchange of convicted terrorists in Jordan for a Jordanian pilot held captive by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the exchange of five Taliban held in Guantánamo prison for a U.S. soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, last year. Schultz’s argument was sad. His point was that unlike ISIS, which is a State Department designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), the United States considers the Taliban merely armed insurgents.

Schultz’s Orwellian “cuttlefish” tactics were particularly inappropriate considering that the Taliban leaders exchanged for Bergdahl have already rejoined the fight against the Afghan government and the international coalition. Even more damaging, while the prisoner exchange deal was ultimately brokered with the Taliban, Bergdahl spent most of his captivity with the Haqqani network — a group that is on the State Department’s list of FTOs.

Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani network, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, an FTO, have repeatedly pledged allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the reclusive leader of the Afghan Taliban. The notion that groups that pledge fealty to Mullah Omar are designated FTOs yet the Afghan Taliban are not simply defies logic.

It is also hard to take Schultz’s boss, Press Secretary Josh Earnest, seriously when he repeatedly defended Schultz’s Taliban characterization on the same day that the Taliban attacked a funeral procession and a police checkpoint claiming 17 lives. Sadly, the press secretary’s trouble with the Taliban characterization had less to do with an intellectual ambush by reporters and more to do with the administration’s failure to clearly classify the Taliban. This is particularly damaging because, by the U.S. government’s own definition, the Taliban’s brutal terror tactics more than qualify the group as a terrorist organization.

Considering the 18 U.S.C. § 2331 definition of international terrorism, most people would be hard pressed to argue that the Taliban are not a terrorist group. According to U.S. Code, international terrorism must:

  • Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum. (Note: FISA defines “international terrorism” in a nearly identical way, replacing “primarily” outside the U.S. with “totally” outside the U.S. 50 U.S.C. § 1801(c))

Unfortunately, neither former President George Bush nor his successor put the Taliban on the list of FTOs. To be fair, Bush did place the Taliban on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists that enabled the U.S. government to freeze Taliban assets worldwide. Also, the Bush administration banished the Taliban to Pakistan after the fall of Kandahar in December 2001. Then, instead of pushing for reconciliation when the Taliban were at their weakest, Bush allowed the Pakistani government to nurse the Taliban back to health and use them as proxies against Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan. In a recent interview, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf mentioned that his government used the Taliban as proxies because Karzai’s cabinet was “controlled by non-Pashtuns who favored India.” Ultimately, by placing more emphasis on the war in Iraq, Bush failed to deal with the Taliban properly and allowed them to regain strength and, later, territory.

In contrast, even as a candidate for the presidency, Barack Obama pledged to put more attention on Afghanistan — a conflict that Obama designated as a “war of necessity.” But, failing to grasp the situation in Afghanistan like Bush, Obama missed an opportunity to characterize the Taliban a terrorist organization as part of the surge of U.S. forces to Afghanistan. Appropriately, Obama’s Afghan strategy sought to prevent U.S. mission failure at the hands of a resurging Taliban and, even though the surge goals focused on “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies,” the majority of military forces targeted the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban were responsible for most of the U.S. casualties associated with the 2009 surge — a strategy that resulted in over half of the U.S. casualties since the start of the war.

On the surface, keeping the Taliban off the FTO list seems to have some advantages. For starters, Obama’s national security team has been able to engage in low-key peace negotiations with the Taliban that would be more difficult to pursue if the Taliban were a designated FTO. Also, without an FTO designation, the United States has been able to leverage limited support from governments that exert influence over the Taliban — such as Pakistan and Qatar.

Unfortunately, Obama’s “reconciliation foolosophy” has been based more on hope than clear and achievable objectives. Similarly, engaging with Pakistan and Qatar has not made the Taliban movement any less vicious in its attacks against civilians. If anything, without the FTO, the U.S. signaled to countries abetting the Taliban that there is no penalty for their support to a group that massacres civilians. In fact, even though Taliban continue to terrorize Afghans in unprecedented ways, the U.S. government continued to feel more comfortable using a vague doctrinal Department of Defense definition of an insurgent group to characterize them instead of designating them an FTO.

This is particularly challenging to understand when the Taliban, by their own admission, have taken credit for all sorts of attacks that fit the parameters outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 2331. For example, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), over 10,000 Afghan civilians were killed in 2014 — the highest ever recorded by the U.N. -– with 72 percent of the deaths caused by insurgents. The Taliban have used targeted assassinations, destruction of schools (some used as polling centers in recent elections) and health clinics, mass executions, and beheadings in order to intimidate and coerce the Afghan population.

It would seem hard to characterize a suicide bomber attack during a theater performance at the French Cultural Centre in Kabul as anything other than a terrorist act.

Also, in 2014, the Taliban killed over 5,000 soldiers and police officers and the beheaded relatives of police officers in Ghazni province. In this context, the White House characterizing the Taliban’s acts as anything other than terrorism is almost as bizarre as Karzai calling the Taliban the “upset brothers.” Unfortunately, by choosing to keep the Taliban off the FTO list, the United States removed an important legal arrow from its quiver of foreign-policy mechanisms to apply international pressure on terrorist groups.

At its core, the concept behind the State Department’s designations of FTOs is that of “curtailing support for terrorist activities and pressuring groups to get out of the terrorism business.” Also, FTO designation “makes it illegal for persons in the United States or subject to U.S. jurisdiction knowingly to provide material support to the group; it requires U.S. financial institutions to block the group’s assets; and it provides a basis for the United States to deny visas to representatives and members of the group.”

In contrast to the Orwellian cuttlefish tactics used to describe the Taliban as ‘just’ insurgents in Afghanistan, the United States has used the FTO designation to apply maximum pressure on many other organizations that embrace terrorist tactics elsewhere in the world. In Colombia, for example, the U.S. government has been unambiguous in its stance against the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army), designating them FTOs in 1997.

Since their creation, the FARC and ELN have demonstrated that armed insurgencies and terrorist groups are not mutually exclusive. According to the State Department, the FARC is responsible for “bombings, murder, mortar attacks, kidnapping, extortion, and hijacking, as well as guerrilla and conventional military action against Colombian political, military, civilian, and economic targets.” Although the FARC and ELN goals and methods fit the DOD definition of armed insurgency, their tactics justifiably warranted the FTO designation in accordance with section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

While conflict in Colombia continues to linger, a comprehensive government strategy that includes focus on better governance, embracing the rule of law, professionalization of the security services, and a cracking down on any group who promotes terrorist activities has yielded better results that earlier appeasement strategy. According to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the purpose of peace talks is “not to humiliate the FARC but to persuade the guerrillas to swap their guns for votes.” Similarly, at some point, the Taliban and the Afghan government will have to reach some form of reconciliation; but a key condition of any negotiation should be the Taliban abandonment of terrorist tactics.

Unlike the Colombian example, however, multiple U.S. administrations have missed opportunities to designating the Taliban as an FTO. To be fair, on its own, the FTO designation is not likely to convince these groups to get out of the terrorism business. Nor is it the game changer that would yield quick results in Afghanistan. After all, the FARC and ELN still remain a bane on Colombia nearly 50 years after their genesis and 18 years after their designation as FTOs. But, as part of a larger government fight against such groups, the FTO designation puts pressure on these groups and their supporters and exacts a cost on terrorist organizations for their tactics.

Additionally, the FTO designation allows the United States and its allies to differentiate between the different elements of groups that have similar ideologies but use different tactics.  For example, in support of the peace process in Northern Ireland, the United States used the FTO to stigmatize Irish Republican Army (IRA) elements that continued to embrace terrorism and oppose negotiations between paramilitary groups and the British Government.  Unlike Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, that chose to join the peace process that resulted in the Belfast Agreement, splinter groups such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA have refused to get out of the terrorism business and, as such, remain designated as FTOs.

The United States has made a lot of mistakes in Afghanistan. One of those was the Bush administration’s decision to ignore any Taliban inclinations to negotiate in the early days of the war and, soon after, missing an opportunity to help shape reconciliation with the nascent Afghan government when the Taliban scattered in Pakistan. Overall, the lack of an enduring grand strategy and an incoherent military plan that lacked a fundamental understanding of both the enemy being fought or the ‘allies’ supported have contributed to the tottering Western ‘experiment’ in Afghanistan.

But the Obama administration’s failure to designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization as part of the surge and post-conflict policy is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of the war. The Taliban tactics fit the definition of international terrorism under 18 U.S.C. § 2331 and deserve to be designated an FTO, in accordance with section 219 of the INA.

Also, the Afghan government must take the bold step of labeling the Taliban appropriately. If the Taliban use terrorist tactics, they should be labeled terrorists and not “upset brothers” or “political opposition” — terms that Afghan presidents have used to describe them in the past.

In the end, Afghans and international supporters of Afghanistan hope that the Taliban will join the political process at some point. This, unfortunately, depends more on the Pakistani government’s willingness to support the peace process than President Ashraf Ghani’s genuine desire to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. But, for the Afghan people, and the government that represents them, to reconcile with the Taliban, the latter will have to abandon the terrorist tactics. No doubt some splinter groups will likely continue to employ terrorist methods. The FTO designation should adjust accordingly to stigmatize those who embrace terrorism and those who choose to leave it behind.

Although Obama chose to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan on an arbitrary timeline, the conflict is intensifying and Taliban terror tactics are even more aggravating. For better or for worse, choosing to end combat operations in Afghanistan is well within the commander-in-chief’s prerogative. But within the context of cuttlefish-like mischaracterizations of the Afghan Taliban, the Obama administration has signaled that it is politically more palatable to end a war against ‘armed insurgents’ prematurely than continue to fight against ‘terrorists’ until they get out of the terrorism business.


Ioannis Koskinas served as a special operations officer for over 20 years. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow at New America and runs a bespoke consultancy firm that focuses on political risk mitigation strategies in frontier markets.

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