12.22.11

In Afghanistan, Furious Reaction to Biden's Newsweek Comments

Reverberations from Joe Biden’s Newsweek interview continue to spread. As Gayle Tzemach Lemmon reports, Afghans are livid at the vice president—and the U.S.

In Afghanistan headlines screamed Vice President Joe Biden’s comments to Newsweek that “the Taliban per se is not our enemy.”

“We are in a position where if Afghanistan ceased and desisted from being a haven for people who do damage and have as a target the United States of America and their allies, that’s good enough,” said Biden. “There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.” Here is how these remarks have been interpreted: “Taliban is Not U.S. Enemy, Says Biden,” declared the “most-read” story on the popular TV network Tolo’s website.

“If the U.S. is now saying the Taliban is its friend, it should explain to its people and its allies why it fought the Taliban over the past 10 years,” Nasrullah Stanekzai, a professor of Kabul University, said in the Tolo story.

Pundits on network evening talk shows debated the motivations behind the vice president’s words, while newspaper editorials openly questioned them.

And on the streets and in interviews, Afghans asked American journalists whether the “Taliban is now America’s friend and brother?”

“Why are you all here if the Taliban is not your enemy? Why have you risked your people’s lives and Afghan lives and spent 10 years here?” I was asked in a morning interview on the subject of education with an NGO leader who asked that I not use her name. “Is this part of the push to bring back the Taliban?”

Two more interviewees asked if I now thought the U.S. was ready to give up fighting the Taliban, while around Kabul Afghan journalists rang one another on their mobiles and asked  what they thought the comments meant and what kind of games the Americans were playing.

Second-day stories did little to quell the talk. “Who are Taliban if not enemies?” asked an editorial in the English-language Outlook Afghanistan, while another headline read that “White House supports the recent remarks by Joe Biden who said the Taliban were not the enemy of the United States.”

Coming as the Biden comments did at the same time as reports of the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar, many made the connection and wondered whether the Biden comments were part of a broader reconciliation deal about which they had yet to be informed.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Thursday hustled to limit the public-relations damage from the vice president’s comments in a release that strung together reactions from both Kabul and Washington.

“Green light for the Taliban: Joe Biden says Taliban is not our enemy,” tweeted Afghan journalist Sharifullah Sahak.

“What the Vice President said was that the Taliban is not necessarily our enemy if they lay down arms and renounce violence, break ties with al Qaeda and accept Afghanistan’s constitution, especially concerning women and minorities,” Amb. Ryan C. Crocker said in a statement released by the Embassy. “The Taliban has a choice: Continue to fight or join Afghan society by accepting those conditions.”

The Embassy release also quoted Crocker quoting Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby.

“As they and when they continue to attack innocent people in Afghanistan and pose a threat to our troops, we consider that is a force we are going to deal with,” Kirby said. “We continue to work very hard to roll back—and we have rolled back—the Taliban and continue to fight them every day.”

By then it was clear Afghans saw the Biden comments a little differently.

“Green light for the Taliban: Joe Biden says Taliban is not our enemy,” tweeted Afghan journalist Sharifullah Sahak.