Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden caused a stir. In remarks to the Daily Beast’s Leslie Gelb, he declared: “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.” The White House tried to “clarify” in this exchange between ABC’s Jake Tapper and spokesman Jay Carney:
Well that settles that.
Mitt Romney’s campaign blasted the administration with this statement: “If Vice President Biden is to be believed, both he and President Obama think the Taliban ‘is not our enemy.’ This statement is bizarre, factually wrong, and an outrageous affront to our troops carrying out the fight in Afghanistan. The Taliban harbored the terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans on September 11th. The Taliban continues to wage war against us and our allies, a conflict in which we have lost over 1,800 troops. The Taliban receives arms and training from Iran. And the Taliban seeks to reinstate a tyrannical government that violently rejects basic notions of human rights and oppresses minorities. The Taliban is clearly a bitter enemy of the United States. Vice President Biden’s statement to the contrary calls into question the White House’s leadership in Afghanistan – or lack of it. The statement is typical of the Obama administration’s foreign policy of appeasement, which sends a weak signal to our enemies around the world and undermines our standing abroad. Both the President and the Vice President must immediately explain themselves.”
But it seems apparent what the administration is up to. As a conservative analyst critical of the administration put it, “If you have decided to quit Afghanistan, which the administration probably has, then all that is left is to negotiate the terms of surrender.” Or to make the excuse that the people with whom you are negotiating are not your enemies.
The distinction that the administration is trying to make, however, is not factually accurate. Jeffrey Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War e-mails me: “There is no question that some insurgents have been willing to give up the fight, but there have been no visible indicators that the senior echelon is amenable to a deal. The notion of confidence-building measures is common in Pashtun society but the Taliban have not been the most trustworthy and honest dealmakers in the past.” He adds: “Furthermore, releasing hardened fighters with Gitmo credentials could very easily reenergize a base that is desperately looking for leadership; We have seen this is the past with Taliban and al-Qaeda figures who have been released. Case in point, look at Mullah Zakir, a former Gitmo inmate who was released and is now rumored to be heading military operations for the Taliban.”
Thomas Joscelyn, writing in the Weekly Standard, concurs that offering to release Gitmo detainees as part of a larger negotiation with the Taliban is foolhardy:
The Obama administration is still pursuing negotiations with the Taliban, even if it doubts a viable negotiating partner sits across the table. And, as part of this ad hoc diplomatic effort, the administration is considering the transfer of Taliban members held at Guantanamo back to Afghanistan. . . .
Even the State Department, which is leading this effort, is not especially confident. Unnamed “senior officials” place “the odds of brokering a successful agreement at only around 30 percent.” That low probability of success is actually a rather high guesstimate coming from the most dovish corridor of the U.S. government.
“There’s a very real likelihood that these guys aren’t serious ... which is why are continuing to prosecute all of the lines of effort here,” one senior U.S. official told Reuters. Imagining that “these guys” – whoever they may be – aren’t serious is rather easy.
Into this amateur effort at statecraft the Obama administration has now injected the possibility that it will acquiesce to Taliban demands to free some detainees from Guantanamo. Reuters reports: “It is not known which ones might be transferred, nor what assurances the White House has that the Karzai government would keep them in its custody.”
It’s become clear that the president, as was true in Iraq, is more interested in helping his reelection prospects than in realistically assessing the prospects for success and supporting the military in accomplishing that end. He is showing himself and the United States to be feckless, a message that is read not only by the Taliban and al-Qaeda but also Iran.
Whether he wins a second term or not, Obama risks acquiring the distinction of the president who had within his grasp, but fumbled, the chance for lasting victories in Iraq and Afghanistan.