WASHINGTON: The White House says that the Afghan Taliban is an “armed insurgency”, not a terrorist group while the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group are terrorists.

White House officials underlined this distinction between the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups at two consecutive news briefings, indicating a major shift in US attitude towards the war in Afghanistan.

As they prepare to end their military presence in Afghanistan by 2016, the Americans seem eager to encourage the Afghan government to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban.

“The Taliban is an armed insurgency; ISIL (IS) is a terrorist group,” said White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz when asked why the United States negotiated a prisoner-swap with the Taliban but was criticising Jordan for doing the same with the Islamic State group.

“The Taliban is an armed insurgency,” he said again when the journalist asked if he did not believe the Taliban were a group of terrorists.

Journalists raised this issue again at another news briefing, asking White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest if he agreed with the new description of the Taliban.

The journalist also reminded him that the US Treasury Department still had the Afghan Taliban on its list of specially designated terrorist groups.

“The Taliban is listed … for two reasons. One is they do carry out tactics that are akin to terrorism … and … designating them allow(s) the United States to put in place some financial sanctions against the leaders of that organisation in a way that’s been beneficial to our ongoing efforts against the Taliban.” said Mr Earnest. “(But) it’s important to draw a distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.”

The White House official pointed out that the Taliban terror tactics principally focused on Afghanistan while Al Qaeda’s aspirations extend beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The United States, he said, was concerned about the Taliban too because they were targeting American and Afghan military personnel and Afghan civilians in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban is a very dangerous organisation,” he said, adding that that’s why the US was training Afghan security forces to deal with these militants.

“That, however, is different than the strategy that we have pursued against Al Qaeda,” said the White House official, noting that Al Qaeda and their affiliates were carrying out terror attacks against Americans and American interests all around the globe.

“And that explains the difference in classification,” he said. “But there is no doubt that both of these organisations are dangerous and have drawn our attention.”

“So you don’t actually consider the Taliban a terrorist group?” asked a journalist.

“They have a different classification … that is different than an organisation like Al Qaeda that has much broader, global aspiration to carry out acts of violence and acts of terror.”

“Was the attack on a Pakistani school that killed 140 kids a terrorist attack?” asked another journalist.

“Yes, it was a terrorist attack” carried out by the Pakistani Taliban, said the White House press secretary. “And these are two different groups.”

“How can the Afghan Taliban not be considered a terrorist organisation when the Treasury considers it one?” the journalist asked.

“It’s clear that there is a difference between the ambitions that are expressed by the Taliban and the ambitions that are expressed by Al Qaeda,” Mr Earnest said.

“So it hangs entirely on the fact that they are local and Al Qaeda is international?” the journalist asked again.

“It certainly makes clear that their aspirations are different. It means that they’re a threat to the American people and our interests are different,” Mr Earnest said.

“There’s no doubt that the threat from the Taliban is different than the threat that is posed by Al Qaeda.”

“What is the real difference?” the journalist asked.

“The difference is simply that the threat they pose is different,” Mr Earnest said.

“Isn’t every terrorist group a little different from every other terrorist group?” asked the journalist.

“They are, but … there is a clear difference between the aspirations that have been articulated by the Taliban and the way they carry out their terror tactics and the terror attacks that are carried out by Al Qaeda,” Mr Earnest said.

“There’s no denying the fact that these are very dangerous organisations.”

However, the US strategy for dealing with the Taliban was different, which focused on training the Afghan security forces and the central government in Kabul to defeat them, he explained. “We’re going to continue to support them as they take the fight to the Taliban.”

The White House official explained that in some situations, the US military stationed in Afghanistan would still carry out operations in self-defence against the Taliban or other terrorists operating there.

“But why aren’t they terrorists?” the journalist insisted.

Mr Earnest explained that it was because the US strategy for dealing with the Afghan Taliban was different from the strategy employed against Al Qaeda.

The White House official said that the US still had reservations about the Taliban and that’s why it did not directly negotiate with the group.

Recent talks for the release of a US prisoner were executed through the Qatari government and that’s how the release was also secured, he said.

Published in Dawn January 31st, 2015

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