A German diplomat who chairs the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee has spoken out forcefully about the need to remove members of the Taliban from the UN’s sanctions list. More importantly, the diplomat, Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the United Nations, says that although the list penalizes members of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the two groups ought to be treated as separate and distinct. Said Wittig:

“It’s now time to separate these two groups because they have different fields of action and their nature is different. Of course, the political message would be clear.”

This has long been one the Taliban’s chief demands and a precondition for starting peace talks. The Taliban argues, not without reason, that if the sanctions list blocks their funds, limits their ability to travel, and so on, they can’t exactly engage in diplomacy. For nearly two years, the government of Afghanistan, including President Karzai, has strongly backed the removal of the Taliban officials from the list. For most of that time, the United States expressed opposition to the idea, although lately Washington has shown that it’s ready to consider the step, which would require a vote in the UN Security Council. One stumbling block there is Russia, which bitterly opposes lifting sanctions against the Taliban and has hinted that it might veto such a step. But a little diplomacy by the United States, Germany and other countries could undoubtedly get the Russians on board.

But, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden, it’s especially important to make a clear distinction between the Taliban and Osama’s gang. The Taliban is almost entirely focused on Afghanistan, its membership is made up of Afghans and it’s never conducted terrorism against the United States or other countries outside its region. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is focused on a worldwide jihad, nearly all of its members are non-Afghans (Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and others), and it has engaged in nihilistic terror against random targets around the globe. (In the past, I’ve written about the distinctions between the two organizations, as in this piece: "The Taliban Is Not Al Qaeda.")

The UN blacklist predates 9/11, having been enacted in 1999 against 142 Taliban officials and 350 members of Al Qaeda. Only five Taliban officials have been de-listed, in January 2010.

Diplomats seeking to get peace talks with the Taliban started enthusiastically support the idea of de-listing the Taliban officials. Germany, which has taken the lead in trying to get talks going—with American support—is in the lead, along with UN officials inside and outside Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a glum Henry Kissinger, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post, reads the handwriting on the wall correctly:

“The quest for an alternative [to war] has taken the form—it is widely reported—of negotiations under German sponsorship between representatives of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, and American officials. Most observers will treat this as the beginning of an inexorable withdrawal.”

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