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Column: The Taliban Litmus Test

Jun. 8, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
President Obama Delivers Commencement Address At W
US President Barack Obama gives the commencement address at the graduation ceremony at the US Military Academy at West Point on May 28. He provided details on his plans for winding down America's military commitment in Afghanistan. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
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If you need to quickly ascertain a US official’s national security and foreign policy philosophy — including on defense spending — just ask about the Taliban.

How Republicans and President Barack Obama view the group illustrates how each side views what constitutes a threat to the US. In many ways, the Taliban has become the ultimate US foreign policy litmus test.

For instance, in neither Obama’s May 27 remarks on US troops levels in Afghanistan nor his West Point commencement speech the next day did the commander in chief mention the Taliban. Instead, Obama reiterated what he has since 2009 described as his “narrowly defined” doctrine for the Afghanistan war. Obama listed his Afghanistan “objectives,” with “disrupting threats posed by al-Qaida” atop the list.

On June 2, reporters asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney if the White House views the Taliban as terrorists. He called the group an “enemy combatant.”

Is the Taliban even a legitimate US threat?

“We will continue to address that al-Qaida threat,” a senior administration told reporters May 27. “With respect to the Taliban, I think that is a challenge that the Afghan National Security Forces will continue to take on.”

Contrast that to hawkish Republicans.

Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CongressWatch on June 3 that if the White House views the Taliban as anything but terrorists, “they’re crazy.”

“There would not have been a 9/11 attack on the homeland if it were not for the Taliban,” Graham said. “Yes, the Taliban are terrorists in any sense of the word. ... They have alliances with al-Qaida. They’re empowering agents of evil. This administration is de­lusional about the state of terrorism.”

Obama’s comments — and those of his top aides — suggest he does not view the Taliban as a long-term threat to the US. At the core of the president’s view of national security needs and budget levels is his “narrowly defined” Afghanistan approach, a belief that US military power has limits and is best used only against direct threats to the US.

At the core of the GOP’s philosophy is a broader view, a belief that US military power often is the best solution — or Washington always should present the credible threat of it to influence foes’ behaviors.

So, on Afghanistan, which side is correct?

“There is some hope that an adequately resourced [Afghanistan National Security Force], layered defense and US ‘four quarter’ advisory strategy could succeed,” Center for Strategic and International Studies Analyst Anthony Cordesman said.

On the other hand, he points out, “there has been no meaningful net assessment of the success of Afghan government/ANSF efforts versus those of the Taliban and other threats.”

It’s unlikely the Obama-GOP chasm will be bridged during Obama’s tenure. But which party offers voters a more palatable answer to the Taliban litmus test will help decide whether the Republicans control both chambers next year. ■

John T. Bennett is the senior congressional reporter for Defense News. Email: Twitter: @BennettJohnT.

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