Reassessing the Taliban

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Less than 6 months ago, certain pundits, politicians, and various others were debating whether or not the US should be involved in negotiations with the Taliban. The discussion was eventually overshadowed by other international conflicts, but after reading about the horrific massacre of over 140 school children in Pakistan on Tuesday, December 16, I am sure there were a few out there like myself who had their memories jogged after this tragic event.

The debate over whether or not to negotiate with the Taliban hit a peak after news broke this summer that SGT Bowe Berghdahl’s release had been secured in exchange for the release of five senior Taliban government ministers to Qatar. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) claimed that the prisoner swap could “encourage future terrorist kidnappings”. Others, such as Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress called it a “smart move”. A commentary on that particularly case is not the focus of this article, but it does allude to the question I would like to discuss, which asks: who and what are the Taliban today? And how should leaders and policymakers deal with them?

There are several individuals who have suggested that the US should engage in discussions with the Taliban that go far beyond prisoner exchanges. Anand Gopal, a journalist and author formerly embedded with the Taliban in Afghanistan suggested the US has “much to learn” by speaking with the Taliban as recently as June of this year. In a piece written for Time Magazine in the same month, Michael Crowley claimed that “however nasty the Taliban may be, it’s not really a ‘terrorist’ enemy”.

Technically, Crowley is correct. Technically. The Afghan Taliban is not on the official State Department list of terrorist organizations, meaning there are certain US policies that do not apply to them as an organization that would apply to say, Al-Qaeda. Prof. Nake Kamrany of University of Southern California in July wrote a piece for Huffington Post which elaborated on the Taliban’s supposed unique distinction saying “(t)here is not (sic) evidence that the Taliban were terrorists. Nor were they accessory (sic) to Bin Laden’s…tragic attack on the United States”.

First, I should point out to the professor, who is according to his biography a trained and barred lawyer, that while the Taliban may have not been on the planes during the attacks on September 11, 2001, they aided and abetted Usama Bin Laden and his cadre before and after the attacks. To borrow from legal parlance, that makes the Taliban an accessory before and after the fact and certainly culpable in some way for the murder of thousands of innocent Americans, regardless of whether or not they were the main perpetrators. Let us have no qualms over the fact it was the Taliban that made itself an enemy and legitimate target of United States by aiding Al-Qaeda.

That being said, perhaps it is time Afghan Taliban also be reclassified as a terrorist organization. Tuesday’s massacre was supposedly in retribution to the fact that many of the children’s parents were Pakistani military members who supposedly aided the US. The attack was supposed to instill fear through violence to achieve a political goal, which is essentially the classical definition of terrorism. Is this not the same behavior that currently listed terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram currently engage in? I would say so.

The attack on the school was a particularly bloody example of a change in Taliban tactics, but there have been several examples in the past year that show a clear trend of increased violence. In February, a bomb attack in Karachi targeting Pakistani police killed 12 and wounded 50. In June, ten heavily armed Taliban militants staged a brazen attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi which left 36 dead, including the attackers themselves. Just days before the school attack, there were several attacks across Afghanistan leaving 21 dead. Two US soldiers were killed in a convoy attack near Bagram Airbase. Some hours later, the head of the Afghan supreme court secretariat was murdered in Kabul. On the next day, December 14, a suicide attack killed six Afghan soldiers in a Kabul suburb. The culmination of this string of attacks then occurred in Helmand, where 12 mine removal specialists were killed by Taliban fighters. These tactics appear to be more in line with those of an insurgency engaging in terrorism as opposed to those of a more conventional “enemy combatant” as the Taliban was described by former White House press secretary Jay Carney this summer.

It is important to note that while it is allied with the Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is technically considered distinct. It is also important to note that the TTP is designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department, unlike their Afghan cousins. The TTP have largely been responsible for the recent events in Pakistan, including the aforementioned school massacre, while the Afghan Taliban have been engaging in various attacks on the Afghan side of the border.

Western leaders must be careful to not view the Afghan Taliban – TTP relationship through a purely Western lens. Unlike a Western style alliance of two distinct and sovereign states, the Afghan Taliban and TTP are quite intertwined culturally and politically, resembling a sort of loose confederation. The TTP was initially created in 2002 by remnants of Afghan Taliban retreating from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous region. Both organizations intend to overthrow their respective national governments in an effort to create Islamic states. Both are largely made up of Pashtun tribes. While the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Omar supposedly does not operate outside of Afghanistan, the TTP under Maulana Fazzlullah has had no qualms about doing so and in fact works in conjunction with their Afghan comrades against ISAF and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) along the eastern border. It is therefore important to keep in mind that Western concerns over sovereignty and national distinction are not as evident in this cross-border Taliban Confederation.

The way in which we view the Taliban as a whole is going to be crucial for the future security of Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly in the immediate future as ISAF forces drawdown. We in the West cannot allow our tendency to view foreign cultures as we would our own to distract from the greater issue: the fact that this Taliban pseudo-confederation is a serious threat to the region as a whole. The Afghan Taliban is decimated. They will rely on their Pakistani allies to replenish the ranks and they will continue to utilize terror tactics as they attempt to disrupt the still newly formed, fledgling Afghan government. We recently witnessed evidence of this new campaign when TTP forces staged an attack on the Kunar border province just after the school massacre. It is unlikely that this incident is not related to the many others I have previously mentioned.

The lines between the two Taliban groups will continue to blur as time passes. Leaders and policymakers must take this into account and realize the Afghan Taliban are just as much a terrorist organization as the TTP, and neither should be allowed to have a place in the future of Central Asia.

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Russ Read

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