Do sanctions prevent terrorism?
Weekly Pulse
14-20 September 2012
The use of UN sanctions as an instrument of international diplomacy is a subject of intense academic debate in recent years. There are arguments in favour and against insofar as the impact of these sanctions on the targeted entity, which are mostly state parties, is concerned.

Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria are five such recent cases, where sanctions imposed successively by the UN Security Council have produced mixed results in terms of changing the behaviour of the respective regime, crippling its power base or eroding it popular support.

In the case of Iraq and Libya, the regime change could only occur through a controversial international military intervention. In the case of Iraq, and to some extent North Korea and Syria, the UN sanctions regime has had grave humanitarian consequences—a factor that often contributes to the targeted regime’s claim of victimhood and its consequent ability to rally domestic public support for survival.

Unlike Iraq, where the UN tried comprehensive sanctions, the option of ‘smart sanctions’—which specifically target the regime by imposing travel ban on its leaders, freezing their assets abroad or curtailing the targeted state’s international financial and trade links—has also mostly failed to bring quick results.

For in a globalised and increasingly multi-polar world, UN sanctions take a long time to have due impact on a targeted state entity, and even longer on a non-state actor. Their efficacy against non-state terrorist actors, such as al-Qaeda, is all the more difficult to realise, since if states can manoeuvre an international sanctions regime exploiting alternative regional or international avenues, then non-state actors have even greater ability to do so.

UN sanctions on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan during 1999-2001 and on Taliban as a non-state actor since late 2001 constitute an interesting case study of how and why the UN coercive diplomacy fails or even backfires. In this case, apart from the humanitarian factor or regional environment, there were other important reasons which limited the impact and eroded the credibility of successive rounds of international sanctions imposed by the UN and the US.

The imposition of these sanctions, especially the first one in October 1999, needs to be contextualised in the Afghan warfare during the Soviet occupation and for some years in its aftermath.

The Taliban had emerged on the Afghan battle scene as a consequence of suppressive warlodism in the early 90s that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the war-torn country. In the run-up to their capture of Kabul in September 1996, Taliban had restored relative peace in the Afghan areas under the occupation, including a uniformed taxation system. After years of infighting, now there was one movement of former Mujahideen in control of most of Afghan provinces, excluding northern Afghanistan which was still in the hands of the Northern Alliance.

However, once Taliban consolidated their grip on power, even before the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1997, they started an unprecedented human rights violation campaign, especially targeting women. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE the three countries which had recognised the Taliban regime. The Clinton Administration, largely for commercial reasons adopted an ambivalent approach towards the Taliban regime, as it was interested in a multi-billion dollar gas Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline project, for which the Texas-based US energy giant UNOCOL and Saudi Delta were competing with the Argentinean Bidas company. For the purpose, top US officials continued to meet Taliban counterparts. It was only when the feminist and women rights groups in the United States became vocal about the Afghan human rights situation under the Taliban rule that the Clinton Administration became critical of the Taliban regime on the issue.

Yet, it was only after the August 1998 attacks by al-Qaeda on two US embassies in East Africa that the US began coercing the Taliban regime for hosting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In July 1999, the Clinton Administration imposed the first ever sanctions on Taliban and al-Qaeda, freezing their assets as well as those of the Afghan Ariana Airline. These US sanctions, just like each one that followed them, were a prelude to the UN Security Council sanctions of October 1999.

The UN Security Council Resolution 1267, which entered into force on November 14, 1999, called on the Taliban regime to “surrender Osama bin Laden to “appropriate authorities in a country where he will be arrested and effectively brought to justice.” The sanctions included an assets freeze on Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership, and prohibition of financial transactions with individuals and organizations linked to them, as well as an air embargo on Taliban-held aircraft. It established the UN Al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions committee to monitor member-states’ compliance with the resolution.

The UN, largely under US dictation, adopted coercive diplomacy as a tool to isolate the Taliban regime—not on count of their human rights practices, which could have made the imposition of sanctions morally justifiable, but on the issue of al-Qaeda and bin Laden. The failure of the Taliban regime to comply with UNSC resolution 1265 let to the imposition of even more stringent sanctions regime, under UNSC Resolution 1333, which was passed in December 2001. It required Taliban to comply with UNSC Resolution 1267, turn over bin Laden, and close all terrorist camps within 30 days. Since Taliban did not do so, the sanctions under it became operational in January 2001. They included an arms embargo against the Taliban, not against other warring Afghan factions; all Taliban and Ariana offices were to be closed immediately, banned non-humanitarian flights; and a travel ban was imposed on Taliban officials except for the purpose of participation in peace talks.

Most importantly, UNSC 1333 was passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This meant that the option of war was on the table some nine months before the events of 9/11. In other words, after 9/11, there was no need for the United States to seek UN Security Council permission for the war in Afghanistan.

Any sanctions regime is a mid-way between talking and fighting, between non-dialogue and war. Why then the two rounds of UN sanctions could not persuade the Taliban towards peace and prevent a deadly war in Afghanistan?

In the end, they failed to achieve the intended objectives. Neither bin Laden’s exit or arrest from Afghanistan was secured, nor could the attacks by al-Qaeda, particularly 9/11, be prevented.

The behaviour of the Taliban regime was indeed impacted, but only initially and to a minor extent. Taliban leaders did show flexibility over bin Laden and al-Qaeda and were even willing to discuss human rights issues; but as the scope of these sanctions widen, particularly when the second UNSC resolution was adopted under Chapter VII, the Taliban leaders hardened their attitude. Increasingly ostracised and isolated, they were more immune to be exploited by al-Qaeda leaders.

Thus, what the UN sanctions on the Taliban regime eventually did was tuning a myth into a reality. The history, the ideology and the objective of the Taliban movement differed fundamentally from those of al-Qaeda. These differences were more acutely visible in the run up to the imposition of UN sanctions regime on Taliban. These sanctions and the Consolidated List of Most Terrorists, which put al-Qaeda and Taliban together, reinforced a link between what was essentially a local movement, the Taliban, with what has all along been a pan-Islamist Jihadi network, the al-Qaeda—with grave consequences for Afghanistan and the region.

This is the first of a two-part article, based on a paper the author presented at a seminar on the ‘Impact of UN Sanctions on Terrorism’ organised by The Democracy Forum at the House of Commons, London. September 5, 2012. It can be accessed at