Michael Rubin and Max Boot rightly take the Obama administration to task for Vice President Biden’s assertion that “the Taliban per se is not our enemy.” Max, charitably, believes the comment illustrates the administration’s ability to confuse friend and foe, while Michael draws the broader conclusion that American diplomats — unlike the U.S. military – have demonstrated a persistent inability to learn from, or even to know about, the history of their failures, in this case the history of failed U.S. efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.
My own take is different. Biden is basically correct in saying that “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.”
Indeed, as far back as early 2009, in his speech before a joint session of Congress, President Obama spoke about combating al-Qaeda, but failed to mention the Taliban. Not to pat myself on the back, but this was what I wrote at the time:
The comprehensive strategy that he promises may be one that seeks to reconcile with the Taliban while continuing isolated strikes against terrorist safe havens. Indeed, his strongest promise of all on national security issues was his assurance that he would not allow such safe havens to plot against the U.S. That promise, firm in isolation, foreshadows a return to the Clinton-era policy of counter-terrorism by cruise missile, just as his promise of “swift and certain justice” for captured terrorists implies a return to the view that terrorism is largely a law enforcement issue. If so, he will be returning to a well-trodden and failed path, one that led directly to 9/11.
Almost three years later, that looks like a good prediction. So I think my friends are selling this administration short when they blame Vice President Biden’s statements on confusion or ignorance. That gives the administration too little credit. These statements represent, instead, the next phase in a strategy that the administration has had in mind from the very beginning: to get out of Afghanistan as rapidly as politically possible by separating – in the minds of the American people if not in reality – al-Qaeda from the Taliban.
Contrary to Michael, the problem is not that Obama and Biden are uninterested in the evidence of our failed efforts to engage the Taliban. The problem is that – as Max notes in another context – they want to get out of Afghanistan, and they believe that they can facilitate this in the American political context by depicting the Taliban as irrelevant to our security interests. And sadly, the evidence of the steadily-declining popular support for the war during the past year suggests that, politically, this calculation is correct.