For anyone who has followed the Afghan war over the past twelve-odd years, the recent addition of the Afghan Taliban to Canada’s list of terrorist entities came as a surprise. More than a surprise, it was disheartening. After more than a decade of engagement in Afghanistan, the Harper government has indicated it is no longer interested in finding a path to peace.
This is the problem with “terrorist lists” in general: they evoke a sense of evil and gloss over the details of complex conflicts like the one in Afghanistan. To simply label the Taliban a terrorist group without taking into account the matrix of alliances and interests that govern Afghanistan indicates a juvenile understanding of that war-ravaged nation. It reduces Afghanistan to Bush-era terms of good and evil.
But terrorism, particularly terrorism in Afghanistan, has never been so simple. Why, it must be asked, did it take the Canadian government more than ten years to add the Taliban to the terrorist list?
According to Canada’s criminal code, “terrorist group” means:
(a) an entity that has as one of its purposes or activities facilitating or carrying out any terrorist activity, or
(b) a listed entity
The first definition is governed by the definition of “terrorist activity” as set out in international conventions. The second is the Canadian government’s loophole, so that even an entity or group that doesn’t meet the requirements of definition (a) can still be listed as a terrorist group, unilaterally.
In legal terms, the Taliban occupy a grey zone in the definition of terrorist activity and appear to be increasingly trying to distance themselves from internationally recognized descriptions of what constitutes a terrorist act. On April 3, for example, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, warned his commanders not to engage in kidnapping for ransom, an act the Canadian criminal code lists as a terrorist activity.
In the past, he has also issued decrees limiting the scope of Taliban attacks to prevent civilian deaths, also in an apparent attempt to give his movement some international legitimacy.
The sincerity of those decrees is of course suspect. Taliban attacks have harmed more civilians in recent years than at any time since the start of the war. Their tactics, low-tech and arbitrary, inevitably kill innocents. Mullah Omar’s decrees are either strategic, in light of continuing negotiations, or representative of the Taliban leadership’s disconnect from the on-the-ground reality of the war they are waging.
But the overarching issues trump the specifics. No peace is possible in Afghanistan without negotiations – this is a fact virtually every stakeholder in Afghanistan now concedes. What the Harper government has done is try to gain short-term political points at the expense of a responsible foreign policy.
In diplomatic terms, it is a disastrous choice. Any leverage Canada may have had in negotiations with the Taliban ended on May 9, when the listing occurred. In moral terms, the Harper government has just devalued everything the Canadian military stood for during its engagement in Afghanistan. Canadian generals were one of the most vocal in their support for negotiations with the Taliban, often clashing with their American counterparts over the issue. That the U.S. administration under Barack Obama has accepted the need for a negotiated settlement is vindication for the approach Canada took in Afghanistan.
This is what Canada’s men and women in uniform, from frontline grunts to officers, all told me during the time I spent with them: negotiations are the only way. From very early on, Canadian soldiers caught on to the reality of Afghanistan: the Taliban represent a significant segment of Afghanistan’s population, primarily in the rural south and east. Defeating them military is impossible. Serious efforts need to be made to reach out and find alternate solutions. Canadians were making those efforts.
The Harper government has just sent the message that all of those sacrifices, all of the hard work and risks our soldiers took, all of the lives lost, in part because Canadians refused to lock themselves away behind blast walls, refused to distance themselves from the local people in Kandahar, many of whom supported the Taliban – were Taliban – all of this, according to the Harper government, was a waste.
According to them, the Taliban is now officially persona non grata.
How this helps to bring an end to the Afghan tragedy is puzzling. It goes against the prevailing logic. But perhaps this is not what the Harper government is after. Despite the billions of dollars spent and the millions still flowing into Afghanistan, it’s possible that our government has thrown in the towel. Forget what happens in Afghanistan, they may be thinking, and worry instead about Canada.
With the new designation, Canadian security agencies can now more closely monitor Canadians and their possible affiliations to the Taliban. Supporting a role for the Taliban in a future Afghanistan may now be tantamount to supporting a terrorist organization. Sending aid money to an Afghan village controlled by the Taliban – of which there is an ever-increasing number – to build, say, a canal, could be construed as terrorist financing.
The basic error in thinking is this: unlike terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban is a national movement. They have never expressed a transnational agenda and have begun to indicate they are willing to work with the Afghan administration. As one commander in Kandahar told me in 2011: “We have changed our position. We now accept that the politicians in Kabul are fellow Muslims; we are of the same nation. We can talk to them.”
By officially lumping the Taliban in with the likes of al-Qaeda, the Canadian government is basically saying Afghanistan is a lost cause. By being the only NATO country to do so isolates Canada and negates all of the sacrifices, in blood and coin, which Canada has made over the past decade. Fortunately, it’s unlikely any other NATO country will make the same mistake.
Adnan Khan is a writer and photographer who lives in Istanbul and Islamabad.