It’s been open season on Joe Biden since the vice president told Newsweek that the Taliban “is not our enemy.”
White House officials say the remarks are being misinterpreted, while Republicans are trying to outdo one another in their denunciations.
Biden seemed to take a harsher view two years ago. At a 2009 security conference in Munich, he said: “Our Russian colleagues long ago warned about the rising threat of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Today, NATO and Russia can, and should, cooperate to defeat this common enemy.” He added: “We’re proud that you’re going after the Pakistan Taliban, who are causing so much damage and destruction, that terrible bombing in Peshawar the other day.”
There are important distinctions here, with Biden focusing then on the Pakistani offshoot of the Taliban, not the Islamic movement that controlled Afghanistan until U.S.-backed rebels toppled the government in late 2001.
Still, given the Taliban’s role in harboring Osama bin Laden, the late mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, it’s hardly surprising that Biden’s latest comments have caused a political furor. That’s especially true since American soldiers are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan during a war that President Obama inherited but chose to escalate while pulling U.S. combat forces out of Iraq, the last of which left this week.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, asked Monday if Biden’s language was regrettable, told reporters: “It’s only regrettable when taken out of context that I just explained. It’s regrettable to present it out of context because it is a simple fact that we went into Afghanistan because of the attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. We are there now to ultimately defeat a Qaeda, to stabilize Afghanistan and stabilize it in part so that al Qaeda or other terrorists who have as their aim attacks on the United States cannot establish a foothold again in that country. So what is also completely clear is that Afghanistan’s future has to include within it reconciliation, and that is why we support the Afghan government-led effort there.”
As for context, Newsweek published the interview with Biden—conducted by Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Affairs and assistant secretary of State in the Carter administration—in Q & A form.
In the interview, Biden said: “Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical. 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. If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us.”
During the same conversation, Biden said the U.S. could not live with an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban: “We could not because they harbored, sheltered, and supported an outfit that created a real threat to the United States.”
Republican presidential candidates seized on the vice president’s remarks, which were a hot topic on Twitter. “VP Biden’s comment that the Taliban ‘is not our enemy’ is an outrageous affront to our troops carrying out the fight in Afghanistan,” Mitt Romney tweeted.
Another candidate, former senator Rick Santorum, employed mockery: “Biden says ‘the Taliban isn’t our enemy?’ I always say find out what Biden thinks on FP issues and take opposite position.”
And Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus challenged the administration’s defense: “It’s outrageous the White House would stand behind Biden’s false statement that the Taliban isn’t our enemy.”
On one level, this is not a fight about policy. Among the Republican candidates, only Jon Huntsman has called for a faster withdrawal of the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, while Ron Paul would pull them out immediately and end American involvement in the war.
But words matter in politics, and “not our enemy,” whatever the nuances, is the kind of phrase that is going to draw fire with American troops fighting and dying in a war that has now lasted a decade.