(CNSNews.com) – A State Department spokesman would not say Tuesday whether a reference by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “Taliban terrorists” reflected a change of policy, at a time when U.S. and Taliban representatives are holding peace talks in Doha.
“The secretary’s words speak for themselves, and I’m not going to go beyond that,” deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said in response to questions about Pompeo’s use of the term.
Speaking to students in Iowa on Monday, Pompeo cited the talks in Doha as an example of the search for common ground when negotiating on behalf of the U.S.
“I have a team on the ground right now trying to negotiate with the Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan,” he replied, adding that the negotiators were searching for a way to achieve an Afghanistan not at war, not posing a threat to the U.S., and respecting the human rights of all Afghans, including women and children.
He described the talks as “incredibly complicated” and expressed the hope that special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the U.S. delegation, makes progress.
“I’m hoping he makes enough progress I can travel there in a couple weeks and help move it along a little bit myself,” Pompeo added. (Palladino said he had no travel plans to announce.)
A Reuters reporter pointed out that the Taliban is not a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
“So has something changed here in which the secretary believes that they are terrorists?” she asked. “And then what does it say about the U.S. negotiating with terrorists, something that it’s said before that it would never do?”
Palladino response was to talk about the talks between Khalilzad’s team and a Taliban delegation led by one of the group’s founders, Abdul Ghani Baradar, and focused on four issues – “counterterrorism, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a ceasefire.”
The reporter tried again: “Are they terrorists? Or did he misspeak?”
“I – the Secretary’s words speak for themselves, and I’m not going to go beyond that,” Palladino said. “I would say we are very focused on bringing better results to what’s going on in that part of the world, and that’s where our focus currently is.”
Terrorists vs. insurgents
The question of how to define the Taliban has long stoked debate.
Though the group has a long and bloody history of terrorist violence, it has not been designated an FTO. It was, however, listed as “specially designated global terrorist” in 2002 under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists.
The Haqqani network (HQN), which predates the Taliban but has effectively become part of it, has been designated as an FTO since 2012.
(HQN leader Sirajuddin Haqqani was appointed Taliban’s overall deputy leader since 2015, and according to the State Department terror reports “HQN is integrated into the larger Afghan Taliban” and it receives funding “as part of the broader Afghan Taliban.”)
While U.S. government statements tend to differentiate between “terrorists” – such as ISIS affiliates – and “insurgents” in Afghanistan, there are sometimes slip ups.
A State Department terrorism report in 2017, for example, includes a reference to “terrorist groups, including al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, and ISIS’s various branches.”
Pompeo himself has blurred the lines before.
In a policy speech last May listing 12 demands the U.S. is making of the regime in Tehran, one of the 12 was that it “must end support for the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan and the region.”
In a major Aug. 2017 speech on South Asia strategy, President Trump said the U.S. would continue to support the Afghan government and military as it confronts the Taliban, without dictating to Afghans how to live: “We are not nation-building again; We are killing terrorists.”
In his response to Trump’s speech, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. and NATO allies would together “assist the Afghan security forces to destroy the terrorist hub.”
Back in 2014, the Obama administration came under fire for its deal to swap five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured by HQN the previous year.
Among the critics was then-House Speaker John Boehner, who said the administration’s action had violated a longstanding U.S. policy “that we don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
In an MSNBC news program at the time, Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, challenged Boehner’s terminology.
“The Taliban is part of the fabric of Afghanistan – they were part of the leadership of that country before we engaged there,” she said. Noting that the U.S. was trying to draw the Taliban into talks, Speier added, “So, to say that they are ‘terrorists,’ at this point, is not necessarily accurate.”
For its part the Taliban, which styles itself the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” denies that what it does is terrorism.
“Our struggle for independence against the occupation is neither some act of terrorism nor the rebellion of a few,” the group said in a typical statement last May. “On the contrary, this is the uprising of a freedom seeking nation which is called jihad in Islamic religious lexicon.”