Sen. Levin urges State Department to put Afghan Taliban on list of terror groups

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) questioned Tuesday why the State Department had not placed the two most potent Taliban groups fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan on its list of terrorist organizations and called on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to do so.

Neither of the two Pakistan-based groups -- the Quetta Shura Taliban or the affiliated Haqqani network -- appears on the department's list of organizations, which requires only that a foreign group be engaged in terrorist activity that threatens U.S. security.

Listing can trigger a freeze on assets tied to the group and other sanctions. Levin, who spoke at a news conference after a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, indicated that such a listing would allow the United States to increase pressure on the Pakistani military to crack down on the groups.

Similar questions arose after the attempted Times Square bombing in May, which U.S. intelligence said was facilitated by the Pakistani Taliban, a separate organization. A group of senators wrote to Clinton in May to ask why the Pakistani Taliban, held responsible for numerous attacks in Pakistan, was not on the terror list. The State Department said in late June that it intended to add the organization.

"This is long overdue," Levin said. "Frankly, we were surprised to find out" that the Taliban is not on the list that includes al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah as well as more obscure Latin American and Asian groups.

Levin and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) returned Monday from Afghanistan, where they said they saw "some signs of progress" in the U.S. war effort, including stepped-up recruitment for and mentoring of the Afghan national army. Both lawmakers are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which Levin chairs.

They said they were encouraged by a change in plans for an upcoming military offensive in Kandahar that will put Afghan forces "in the lead" for one segment of the operation. Levin, who has pressed for more responsibility to be given to the Afghans, said the local forces had prepared a campaign plan for the Arghandab district northwest of Kandahar that has been approved by the coalition command.

"It's a very important, dramatic event," he said of the Afghan-led operation, which he said would begin late this month or in early August and would include heavy fighting. "The Taliban's worst nightmare in Afghanistan is for the Afghan army to be in the lead in operations against them," Levin said, noting that it would "give the lie" to Taliban "propaganda" that it is fighting invading foreign forces.

U.S. forces have been conducting clearing operations in Arghandab -- where they estimate the Taliban controls up to 40 percent of the territory -- since last summer. They have said the Taliban controls 80 percent of Zhari, the district immediately west of Kandahar city, where thousands of newly deployed U.S. forces are preparing an offensive scheduled to begin in September.

"The next few months will see difficult fighting," Reed said.

The lawmakers said that the result of U.S. operations in Marja, part of a Marine offensive launched in Helmand province in February, was a "mixed picture" and that they anticipated a different kind of effort in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and a Taliban stronghold. Kandahar, Reed said, would include "tactical operations similar to those in Iraq," where a security belt was positioned around a city to interdict enemy communications and movement, allowing the indigenous government to establish itself.

The lead local official in Marja, Haji Zahir, was replaced Monday without explanation by the Afghanistan government. Zahir, who spent four years in a German prison for attempted murder, was initially praised by U.S. officials but ultimately appeared unwilling to engage in the nitty-gritty of governance.

"He was Mr. Right Now, not Mr. Right," a senior U.S. military official said Tuesday of Zahir.

Staff writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran contributed to this report.

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