The US fought the Taliban in Afghanistan for decades, yet it never designated it as a terrorist group. The US has never fought Hamas, yet it has designated it as a terrorist group. This puts the contradictions in Washington’s positions on these movements in a nutshell.
The Taliban gave Al-Qaeda safe sanctuary in their country after the 11 September attacks against the US. The US then invaded Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban government, and waged a 20-year war against the Taliban alongside the local army it created. Thousands of US, Afghan, and other soldiers died in that war, which only ended with the US withdrawal and the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul in August 2021.
After 20 years in Afghanistan, the US realised that it could not shed its role as an occupying power, despite the many modernising measures it tried to impose. According to US President Joe Biden, the US spent a trillion dollars on building a new Afghan army, security agencies, and modern-looking government institutions, and it brought in Western-educated Afghan elites whom it installed in various leadership positions. Yet, it could not make any of this take root in the Afghan environment.
In the end, the US bowed to the inevitable for any occupying power, even one in the guise of a benevolent moderniser, which is failure and defeat.
However, with the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it is doing the opposite. Washington continues to pour billions of dollars into furnishing Israel with the latest weapons to kill and supress the Palestinians. Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, it has watched as Israeli settlements have taken over 40 per cent of the West Bank, while the settler population has grown eight-fold. The number of Palestinians in Israeli jails has multiplied in tandem.
Whereas the US withdrew from Afghanistan after acknowledging the failure of its “benevolent” occupation with its mission to modernise the country and implant a democratic model, it has never made a serious attempt to restrain Israel’s malevolent occupation with its mission to take over all the West Bank and expel or kill its indigenous civilian population.
It is also noteworthy that the US did not insist that the Taliban change its political or ideological outlook or even its attitude towards women before it handed back control of the country. The US simply withdrew and let the Taliban do as they pleased.
Under the Taliban’s theocratic system of government in Afghanistan, the ruler, or emir, is elected by a narrow group of Islamic leaders. Even the country’s Shura, or legislative council, is only advisory. The system rejects political parties as a form of pre-Islamic fanaticism, yet it rules more by dogma than it does by rational policy.
Its recent decisions to ban female education and to ban women from working in the private sector are probably unprecedented in the history of government by extremist religious groups. No other theocratically oriented society has prohibited female education, although they have sometimes enforced gender segregation in classrooms. Nor have they banned women from the workplace, even if they have restricted the types of occupations women may have.
The Palestinian group Hamas took part in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, and it won in the Gaza Strip. They are certainly more open-minded on social issues relating to women’s rights and personal rights than are the Taliban.
On the other hand, it is also true that they are exclusionist and have monopolised control over Gaza and that they have deepened the rift between Gaza and the West Bank. No international stakeholder sees Hamas as a convincing political partner, especially given its record of rule in Gaza. But these are not the factors that are foremost in Washington’s mind.
Ultimately, the US stance on the Taliban was informed by a single factor, which was that the mission of the occupation and the billions it spent to create an alternative to the Taliban in Afghanistan only succeeded in building a house of cards. In the end, the US accepted this reality, let the house of cards collapse, and left Afghanistan to the Afghans.
Meanwhile, it is unable to acknowledge that the root of the problem in Palestine is the Israeli occupation and that the remedy is the end of the occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
You cannot get rid of a terrorist movement just by affixing a “terrorist” stamp on it. Nor is the solution to insist that it meets certain standards devised by the international community. Under international law, the solution is to end the occupation, not to “educate” liberation movements and organisations.
Extremist and terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group are different. They can be eliminated or marginalised because they are not nationalist in their outlook, and they have no durable popular base. What they are able to command in any country would dwindle if offered a viable social and political alternative or if they were driven out of the country.
Hamas and the Taliban, on the other hand, are like the Algerian National Liberation Movement (the FLN – which France branded as terrorist in the 1950s) and similar movements because they are grounded, not just in some ideological or doctrinal choice, but in a society’s broader cause of liberation.
It is possible to dismantle and break up Hamas’ military power, as Israel intends to do. But its grassroots will only produce a new movement. Whatever the name of this might be, it would have the same goal: to end the occupation and achieve national liberation and independence.
The writer is former parliamentarian and head of the Arab European Unit in Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly