Should the Afghan Taliban’s terrorist designation be reassessed?

The Taliban’s lightning-fast and mostly peaceful return to power last month resulted in the group becoming Afghanistan’s de facto leaders. They’re now assembling a government, one which Russia said that it might recognise following the completion of this process as long as it includes all ethnic and political forces. Moscow still regards the Taliban as terrorists even though it pragmatically engages with the group in the interests of peace and security. President Putin also said last week that “The sooner the Taliban join the so-called family of civilised peoples, the easier it will be to communicate, have influence and ask questions.”

These fast-moving developments suggest that the rest of the international community should also reconsider the Taliban’s terrorist designation. This necessitates a reconceptualisation of the group’s role over the past two decades in order to legitimise that possible course of action. The Taliban was previously designated as terrorists because of its ties with groups like Al Qaeda, especially its prior hosting of Osama Bin Laden who the US accused of organising the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Taliban always denied that its guest was involved in that atrocity and recently reiterated its claims that no such evidence exists to prove it.

Nevertheless, the US toppled the Taliban anyhow even though its justification for attacking Afghanistan was to destroy Al Qaeda’s network there as revenge for 9/11. It mission quickly expanded from anti-terrorism to regime change and then so-called “nation building”, the last of which proved to be its Achilles’ heel. During the nearly two-decade-long occupation of Afghanistan, the US and its Afghan National Army (ANA) allies carried out war crimes against the Afghan people under the pretext of fighting the Taliban, who it should be remembered hadn’t ever threatened any other country before and strictly limited its political aims to Afghanistan.

Throughout the course of this struggle, the Taliban resorted to unconventional warfare tactics such as roadside bombs, suicide attacks, and other unsavoury means that many in the international community described as terrorism. It targeted the foreign occupiers and their local collaborators alike, which generated considerably negative media attention across the world. The Taliban’s reputation abroad remained terrible but it gradually began to be seen as the “lesser evil” among average Afghans when compared to the US and its allies. Although the Taliban adhered to a strict interpretation of Sharia, it effectively imposed law and order and wasn’t corrupt.

Many Afghans and their family members were either abused or killed by the US and its ANA proxies. The rural three-quarters of the population suffered the most from this “collateral damage”, unlike the urban minority, many of whom benefited from the occupation forces’ socio-economic infrastructure investments in their country’s largest cities. The rural majority was also more insular and less educated, which meant that the rest of the world rarely had a chance to hear their concerns. This resulted in international perceptions about the country being influenced by the more open and educated urban minority that generally disliked the Taliban.

Unlike the US, its local allies, and the international community, the Taliban listened to Afghanistan’s rural majority and began to win back their hearts and minds. With time, the Taliban realised that it had to change some of its ways for pragmatic reasons and thus began to cut ties with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, comparatively moderate some of its previously ultra-strict interpretations of Sharia, and include more minorities into its ranks. This led to it transforming into a national liberation movement in the eyes of average Afghans and afforded it the political legitimacy needed to participate in the country’s peace process.

Taliban representatives started traveling to China, Pakistan, and Russia, all three of which encouraged the movement to remain committed to its reforms in order to be cautiously welcomed into the international community upon the eventual conclusion of the Afghan peace process. It was originally intended that the group would form part of a planned transitional government following the US’ withdrawal but former Afghan President Ghani refused to resign as the Taliban’s main precondition for this. This prompted the Taliban to commence its nationwide liberation offensive that succeeded a lot more swiftly than most observers expected.

The much larger and better equipped ANA mostly surrendered en masse as the group approached the gates of Afghanistan’s largest cities. The minority-majority northern regions also didn’t put up much resistance either. These surprise outcomes were attributable to the Taliban having won most of their hearts and minds through its earlier mentioned reforms that transformed it into a national liberation movement in most of the population’s eyes. Had this not happened, the ANA would have surely resisted the Taliban a lot more forcefully and minorities would have revolted by now. Kabul might also have remained outside of their control too.

The international community must keep all of these observations in mind when considering whether to recognise the Taliban’s forthcoming government as the legitimate Afghan authorities. As President Putin recently noted prior to the Taliban’s reported victory over the “Panjshir Resistance” this weekend, “The realities as they are, the Taliban movement controls nearly the whole territory of Afghanistan, except for Panjshir and the adjoining territories to the north, small territories that border on Tajikistan. If this is so, we must proceed from the realities.” This is the most pragmatic stance for any country to take.

Russian Special Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabul earlier advised that “we need to take the cultural and religious background of the Afghan people into account and refrain from trying to impose anything on them based on our own view of democracy, order and other things.” This policy pronouncement can be interpreted as a warning to the West not to judge the Taliban’s forthcoming government by their own liberal-democratic standards since such systems are completely alien to Afghanistan’s traditional culture. It also shows that Russia will respect the Taliban’s choice of government as long as it’s inclusive like Moscow expects.

Russia is clearly taking the lead in articulating the legitimate reasons why it might eventually recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. The Kremlin is pragmatically responding to regional realities as they objectively exist, has no desire to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, and respects that country’s cultural differences. It only asks that the Taliban remain committed to fighting against terrorist groups, respect minorities’ and women’s rights, and include all ethno-political forces in its forthcoming government. The Taliban has its own interests for doing all three of these because they’ll most effectively help it sustain its restored rule.

Reverting back to its old ways of harbouring terrorist groups out of ideological sympathy for their causes, brutally suppressing minorities and women, and espousing Pashtun chauvinism at the expense of other ethno-political groups would counterproductively isolate the Taliban from the international community and provoke another destabilising round of domestic unrest. Should the Taliban meet the expectations held of it by Russia and others, then those countries should reward the group by reconsidering its existing designation as terrorists and subsequently recognise them as Afghanistan’s legitimate government in order to facilitate its reconstruction.