They’re foreign, they’re terrorists, they’re an organization — but should they be officially labeled a “foreign terrorist organization”?
The Taliban is the brutal fundamentalist Islamic governing body that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until late 2001. They were swept out by U.S. and international forces which invaded following the September 11 attacks, since they had provided harbor and shelter for al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the attacks.
In August 2021, coinciding with U.S. forces withdrawal from the country after two decades, the Taliban completed their two-decade efforts to retake control of the country. So many Afghans tried to escape in response that the nation’s main airport in Kabul was overrun, with some even plummeting to their deaths after attempting to hold onto airplanes’ wings or tires after being initially denied access to the limited seats.
The State Department maintains an official list of foreign terrorist organizations. There are currently 72, including two which have already been added in the first months of the Joe Biden administration. There are three requirements to make that list: the organization must be foreign, engage in terrorism, and that terrorism must specifically threaten the U.S., either by harming U.S. individuals or more broadly threatening national security.
Despite apparently meeting all three qualifications, the Taliban has never been added to the State Department list. In 2002, President George W. Bush issued an executive order adding the Taliban to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT), where it remains today. Yet that list falls under the purview of the Treasury Department and deals with economic sanctions, rather than with U.S. foreign policy more generally.
What the legislation does
New legislation would require the State Department to designate the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization.
A one-page bill that would do only that was introduced in the Senate on September 21 as S. 2770, by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR).
Longer 14-page legislation which would do that in addition to other policy changes, such as also requiring the State Department to designate the government of Afghanistan as an official state sponsor of terrorism, was introduced as the Preventing the Recognition of Terrorist States Act. The Senate version was introduced on September 14 as S. 2745, by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). The House version was introduced a week later on September 22 as H.R. 5333, by Rep. Scott Franklin (R-FL15).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the Taliban clearly meets all three criteria for inclusion on the State Department list, and if the administration won’t make that step of their own volition, Congress should force their hand.
“Despite its depraved behavior, you won’t hear anyone in our government call the Taliban what it is: a terrorist organization,” Sen. Cotton said on the Senate floor. “Instead, Secretary of State Blinken has said, for example, that the Taliban ‘does not meet the test of inclusivity.’ It is as if the Biden administration is more concerned that the Taliban is led by men than that it is led by terrorists.”
(Blinken did indeed say that, during a joint press conference with the foreign minister of Germany in September.)
“The State Department’s terrorism list includes groups like Shining Path, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist guerillas in Peru, and Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese doomsday cult,” Sen. Cotton continued. “If the State Department can go to the trouble of designating those groups as terrorist organizations, surely they can do the same for a band of jihadists whose hands are dripping with American blood.”
What opponents say
It’s not that opponents claim the Taliban doesn’t deserve the foreign terrorist organization, rather they argue the designation shouldn’t be made until the immediate crisis has passed.
“What comes with an FTO [Foreign Terrorist Organization label] is the withdrawal of humanitarian organizations from the country at hand. We know that because we saw it in Yemen,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said on the Senate floor. “When President Trump designated the Houthis as an FTO for about a week, humanitarian organizations started pulling up their stakes. Right now, there are 18 million Afghans who are in need of lifesaving humanitarian assistance. This is not the moment to take a step that will cause Afghans to starve.”
“The second reason not to do this this way is because, whether we like it or not, we are in communication through intermediaries with the Taliban to get our people out, to get our partners out,” Sen. Murphy continued. “There are flights leaving on a regular basis. And to designate them as an FTO, in addition to the existing designation that the Taliban has as a specially designated global terrorist entity, is to risk our ability to continue to bring our people out.”
Odds of passage
For the Preventing the Recognition of Terrorist States Act, the House version has attracted six Republican cosponsors and awaits a potential vote in any of six different committees, though likely the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The Senate version has attracted five Republican cosponsors and awaits a potential vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Cotton’s bill has not yet attracted any cosponsors, and awaits a potential vote in the same committee.
Odds of passage are low in the Democratic-controlled Congress.