The story is heartbreaking. A Facebook status update on July 16, 2013, from Ahmad Sardar, the Afghan journalist in Kabul. Nelofar, his 5-year-old daughter asks her dad, “Do the Taliban kill animals too?” The father answers no, and the little girl says: “I wish we were animals.”
Little Nelofar is dead now, brutally murdered by the Taliban – shot in the head – together with her dad, her mom and her 8-year-old brother. Of Nelofar’s family, only her 2-year-old brother has miraculously survived, in a coma with three bullets in his body.
On March 20, 2014, on the eve of the Persian New Year, the Taliban managed to enter the highly fortified Serena Hotel, located just a kilometer away from the Afghan presidential palace, where Nelofar and her family were celebrating the Nawrooz, the arrival of the spring and of the New Year.
The Taliban suicide mission left nine people dead and many more injured before Afghan forces killed the four attackers, who had managed to sneak pistols and ammunition inside the hotel, despite the tight security measures.
This is certainly not the first ruthless killing of civilians by the Taliban and, as Afghans know, it will not be the last. Every attack has been accompanied by widespread resentment of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has on numerous occasions called the Taliban his “dissident brothers.”
Many Afghans accuse Karzai of turning a blind eye to the massacres of civilians by the Taliban in the hearts of the Afghan capital and other major cities. Karzai never directly condemns the Taliban for the killings. Instead, he and other officials release statements that refer to the killers as the “enemies of peace and stability,” an absurd and overused phrase that carries no real sense of condemnation toward the Taliban themselves.
Some inside the government have privately told journalists that they are officially being asked by the president’s office to use such ambiguous expressions.
The deadly attack on the Serena Hotel occurred on the same day that yet more Taliban fighters were freed from Bagram Prison, complete control of which was transferred to the Afghan government exactly a year ago. Since, then, most of the prisoners – considered dangerous members of the Taliban – have been let go without formal trial and over the strong protests of both U.S. officials and a majority of the Afghan people.
Despite the fact that the Taliban’s use of deadly force against the civilian population is widely branded as “terrorist attacks” inside and outside of Afghanistan, neither the Afghan government nor the U.S. officially recognizes the Taliban as a terrorist organization.
The U.S. policy of not including the Taliban on its list of terror entities has been purely political. Washington saw it as ruining its chances of some kind of rapprochement with so-called moderate Taliban. In October 2012, the Americans finally gave up hope of reaching a deal through secret contacts, angering the Afghan president and exacerbating the deterioration of his relations with the United States. However, even this failure has evidently yet to convince the Americans that the time has come to change policy.
Few Afghans think the Taliban is simply an insurgent group, or that it represents a Pashtun movement, as was once suggested by the late Richard Holbrooke. It is true that many Taliban are Pashtuns, but not all Pashtuns are Taliban.
The Afghan government will not recognize the Taliban as a terrorist organization – the influence of the group’s empathizers and anti-Western figures within the government ensures that. Some Afghan military officials and officers say privately that the policies of the central government bind their hands, restraining them from employing their full capabilities in the fight against the Taliban. Last year, Karzai, enraged by what he saw as civilian casualties during an air raid requested by the Afghan Army, decreed that Afghan forces would be forbidden to use NATO’s air support during operations against the Taliban. The decree, many Afghan officers believe, has only emboldened the Taliban to broaden the use of ordinary villagers as human shields in their attacks on Afghan and international forces.
There is no sign that Karzai will put aside his vain hopes of winning the hearts and minds of his “dissident brothers”; not even at the cost of the many lives taken during the bloodshed perpetuated by the Taliban on a daily basis. Karzai has lost the faith and trust of the Afghan people on this.
It is an open secret that Mr. Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the Americans is purely political, with an eye to winning the Taliban’s favor. In February, Aimal Faizi, the president’s spokesperson, speaking with The New York Times, claimed that the Afghan government was in secret contact with the Taliban and that they “were encouraged by the President’s stance on the Bilateral Security Agreement and his speeches afterwards.” In his speeches, Karzai has bitterly criticized the U.S. and NATO, insinuating that it was their presence in Afghanistan that was the main cause of insecurity and instability.
The Afghan public meanwhile worry that the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan will mean a return of the Taliban to power. There is an increasing need for the international community, led by the United States, to take a clear stance with regards to the Taliban.
In short, it is time for Washington to put objective facts above political wishful thinking and officially recognize the Taliban as a terror organization. Many other members of the international community would then surely follow suit, resulting in real and effective pressure on the Taliban and its supporters, both inside Afghanistan and at a regional level. Acknowledging the Taliban as a terrorist entity will also facilitate more cooperation between the international community in their fight against terrorism, based on universal legal conventions and international law.
Little Nelofar was surely not the only Afghan child to be so frightened of the Taliban; the fear has paled the face of every Afghan. The first step in overcoming that fear, however deep and complex, is for people to know what they are dealing with: insurgents or terrorists.
Aziz Hakimi is an Afghan writer and journalist based in London. He is the editor of Afghanistan Monitor, a Farsi-language website dedicated to Afghan news and analysis.