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Are The Taliban Terrorists?

Taliban representatives in Qatar.
Taliban representatives in Qatar.

Many were surprised when a White House spokesman recently called the Afghan Taliban an "armed insurgency" and refrained from calling the hardline militant group terrorists a month after the United States ended combat operations in Afghanistan.

The United States lost more than 2,000 soldiers in its 13-year war against the Taliban after it led an international coalition to topple their regime in Afghanistan in late 2001.

The Taliban were accused of harboring Al-Qaeda, and a day after thousands were killed in the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, former U.S. President George W. Bush declared that his country would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

On January 28, White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters that "the Taliban is an armed insurgency" unlike the Islamic State, which is a terrorist group.

The next day, reporters questioned White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. He said the administration sees the Taliban differently than designated international terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda. "The Taliban has resorted to terror tactics, but those terror tactics have principally been focused on Afghanistan," he said.

The comments provoked considerable reaction, such as a sarcastic January 30 headline on the Fox News website: "White House acknowledges -- but also denies -- that Taliban are a terrorist group."

Writing in the conservative National Review Online, Andrew C. McCarthy called the White House comments cynical.

"This business of distinguishing 'insurgents' from 'terrorists' is nonsense," he observed. "An insurgency is just a domestic uprising (in the sense that the insurgent is from the country in which he is rebelling). When insurgents use terrorist tactics, they are domestic terrorists."

A closer examination of the U.S. designations for the Taliban reveals that while individuals insurgent leaders and some Taliban factions have been designated terrorists, most members of the Afghan Taliban are only considered insurgents.

Barnett Rubin, a New York University academic, spent years advising the U.S. State Department on how to craft policies to help in reconciling the Taliban with the Afghan government.

He says the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations does not list the main organization of the Afghan Taliban, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). It does, however, list Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Afghan Taliban's powerful military wing, the Haqqani network, as foreign terrorist organizations. The Haqqanis, a large Jihadist family from southeastern Afghanistan, however, consider themselves part of the Afghan Taliban, who have backed these claims.

"Of course Afghan Taliban (IEA) uses terrorism. So did [the anti-Soviet Afghan] mujahedin [in the 1980s]. But the U.S. has concluded the Afghan Taliban (IEA) does not target anything outside Afghanistan: not the U.S., India, China or Russia," he told RFE/RL's Gandhara website.

Rubin says some organizations, even after meeting the legal requirement for being designated as a terrorist organization, are not officially labeled. "The law does not require designation. It only authorizes the administration to designate the organizations if they meet the criteria," he said. "Using the designation is ultimately a political decision."

Washington's views about the Afghan Taliban began to change in 2009, when, as part of his new policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Barack Obama backed reconciliation between the Taliban and the Western-backed Kabul government.

"The U.S. and the Afghan government agree that the goal with Afghan Taliban (IEA) is to contain them and get them into the peace process," Rubin noted. "Now this is very different than our goals for Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State militants or TTP."

The United Nations also acknowledged these distinctions and in 2011 decided to split its Al-Qaeda and Taliban sanction regime and established separate Al-Qaeda and Taliban sanction lists with distinct criteria for the two organizations.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that the Taliban are still listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists by the U.S. Treasury Department. Washington is still offering $10 million for information regarding the Afghan Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Omar.

Many more Taliban figures have been designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists and, like Omar, some even feature on the State Department's Rewards for Justice program. The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center displays the Afghan Taliban on its global map of "terrorist groups."

Rubin attributes some of these designations to political disagreements in Washington. He acknowledges that U.S. policymakers still have to address some fundamental questions about the Taliban even after they have symbolically ended the war in Afghanistan.

"We will cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.