US senators seek to designate Taliban as terrorist organisation

Experts see move as unlikely as it would tie US government's hands even further in Afghanistan

In the letter, the senators argue that the Taliban 'present a significant threat to the United States'. AFP
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A group of US senators has sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the designation of the Taliban as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.

The letter, dated Wednesday, was written by four Republican senators, including Rick Scott, Dan Sullivan, Tommy Tuberville and Joni Ernst, a veteran.

In the letter, the senators argue that the Taliban “present a significant threat to the United States".

The senators rejected the premise that the Taliban have moderated their behaviour since they were overthrown in 2001.

“Since re-establishing control of Afghanistan [in August], the Taliban resumed the same murderous and oppressive habits that characterised their leadership tenure prior to the arrival of US forces in 2001,” the senators wrote.

They accused the group of public attacks, beatings of women and girls, and persecuting dissidents.

“Among those beaten and chased by Taliban forces were American citizens and their families still living in Afghanistan,” they said.

The letter makes also reference to the August 26 suicide attacks that killed 13 US servicemembers in Kabul. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack, though the letter appears to imply that the Taliban were also involved.

“There is no evidence thus far from our commanders in the field that there has been collusion between Taliban and ISIS,” US President Joe Biden said after the attack.

The new Taliban government, formed two weeks after the attack, contains Cabinet members who have been designated as terrorists by the US. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the new interior minister and the leader of the Haqqani network, for example, has a $10 million bounty on his head for his role in the killing of Americans in Afghanistan.

“We believe the Taliban easily meets all three criteria [foreign organisation, engages in terrorist activity, threatens the US] and urge you to consider designating the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organisation and treating them as such to the maximum extent of the law,” the senators wrote.

Separately, Marco Rubio and five other Senate Republicans introduced legislation this week that would direct Mr Blinken to designate the “illegitimate Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as a state sponsor of terrorism and the Taliban as a terrorist organisation”.

If passed, the Preventing Recognition of Terrorist States Act would bring sanctions against foreign actors who knowingly provide assistance to the Taliban.

But it is unlikely that the State Department will label the Taliban as a terrorist organisation or impose sanctions on its outside funders at this point, one expert says.

Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Centre and an expert on counter-terrorism, described the Republican push to designate the Taliban as “political theatre".

“It's all political theatre, all for show. It's an attempt to make things more difficult for the Biden administration,” Mr Clarke told The National.

He said that the silence of Republican senators when former president Donald Trump was negotiating with the Taliban makes their push seem deeply partisan.

“Where were these objections when President Trump, a Republican, was talking about inviting the Taliban to Camp David in Sept 2019?” he asked.

As for the merit of such a designation, Mr Clarke argued that it would complicate an already problematic situation for the administration.

“The situation is already complex because several current members of the Taliban's government [such as Siraj Haqqani and Khalil Haqqani] are wanted terrorists by the US.”

Being designated a terrorist organisation would prohibit any US government contact with the Taliban. Mr Biden has continued the engagement that Mr Trump started with the Taliban, and US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad remains in Doha where he regularly convenes with the group’s leaders.

“The nature of [US] engagement and the nature of any relationship depends entirely on the actions and conduct of the Taliban,” Mr Blinken said last month.

“I don't think there is any way that the Biden administration could designate the Taliban as [a foreign terrorist organisation] because it would close the door to working together in any capacity in the future,” Mr Clarke said.

Updated: September 16, 2021, 4:12 PM