After presiding for six years over a war in which over 1,600 Americans were killed fighting the Taliban, Obama did not mention the enemy during his West Point Commencement Address.
That wasn’t unusual. Obama has a curious habit of avoiding the “T-word” in his official speeches.
Even when delivering his Rose Garden speech about Bergdahl’s return, the Taliban were never mentioned.
Obama’s mentions of the Taliban vary by context. When speaking to the military he will sometimes say that the United States is at war with the Taliban. In international diplomatic settings however there is a subtle shift in his language that emphasizes that the conflict is really a civil war between the Taliban and the Afghan government with the United States there to act as a stabilizing force.
When discussing the Qatar process, his language suggested that the United States was only there to facilitate an understanding between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The President of Afghanistan claimed that Obama had told him, “The Taliban are not our enemies and we don’t want to fight them.”
Vice President Joe Biden had expressed similar thoughts, stating, “The Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical.” White House spokesman Jay Carney awkwardly defended Biden by arguing that the United States was fighting the Taliban, but was there to defeat Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda in Afghanistan however had already been defeated by Bush.
During the campaign and once in office, Obama had proposed outreach to the “moderate” Taliban. Biden estimated that only 5% of the Taliban were incorrigible while 70% and then another 25% could be reasoned with.
According to Biden, these Taliban were expected to end all ties with Al Qaeda, accept the Afghan constitution and offer equal treatment to women. Obama issued the same demand last year. The Taliban who hold strict religious beliefs about the evils of democracy and the inferiority of women did not rush to take Obama and Biden up on their offer.
Obama’s dual views of the Taliban made for an incompatible policy. When playing the role of commander, he delivers applause lines about “pushing the Taliban back” and large numbers of American soldiers were sent to Afghanistan. But the rest of the time he views the Taliban not as an enemy, but like Boko Haram or Hamas, as a group that is acting violently only because their legitimate political needs are not being met.
Some might say that it was as a commander that Obama sent Bowe Bergdahl to Afghanistan, but that it was as an appeaser that he brought him back. And yet both Obamas are the same man. Obama sent Bowe Bergdahl to Afghanistan for the same reason that he brought him back.
This is the discontinuity that bedevils modern liberal foreign policy which fights wars it does not believe in, rejecting war, while still attempting to use force as an instrument of diplomacy.
When Bush sent American soldiers off to war, it was because he believed that there was a real enemy to fight. Obama, as we have seen, never believed that the Taliban were our enemy and his own intelligence people had told him that Al Qaeda had a handful of fighters in Afghanistan.
If so, why did he send thousands of American soldiers to die or be maimed fighting the Taliban? He did it to reconcile with the Taliban.
The Afghan Surge had never been meant to defeat the Taliban. It was the ‘stick’ part of a ‘carrot and stick’ offer. Obama’s new ‘smart’ approach to Islamic terrorism depended on isolating that proverbial tiny handful of extremists by empowering the moderate extremists. Drone strikes and outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood were both meant as precision tools for isolating disruptive terrorists.
Obama was aware that the difference between the moderates and extremists was not in beliefs, but in tactics. Like many on the left, he rejected the War on Terror as a war against a tactic, but he was willing to deal with it by isolating the Islamist tactic and rewarding the Islamist ideology. Americans still upset over September 11 would see terrorism decline while Islamic terrorists would be able to achieve their goals through political means. This was the balance that his foreign policy was built on.
He was trying to win the War on Terror, not by defeating the terrorists, but by helping them win, isolating the terrorist tactic and rewarding the Islamist ideology
Drone strikes and the Arab Spring were not contradictions. They were part of the same policy.
The policy of fighting terrorism by empowering terrorists was not a new one. That same policy had led to the Peace Process in Israel. But it appealed to an administration that had very little real world experience, a great deal of contempt for its own country and a high opinion of its own cleverness.
Despite all the cleverness, dismantling the War on Terror by pairing strategic violence and appeasement never actually worked. Typical of such efforts was the pursuit of Bin Laden which Obama had meant to use to shut down Gitmo, but instead became an unintentional trophy. Violent means could be used to achieve violent ends, but not diplomatic ones. Diplomacy however only dragged the US deeper into more military involvements as the Arab Spring led to the Libyan War.
And the Syrian Civil War.
Obama cultivated the image of a peacemaker who ends wars, forever talking about his plans to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but his policies were creating new wars instead.
Obama had been dismissive of the Iraq Surge long after it was proven to have worked. Why then did he decide on an Afghan Surge? Obama misread the Iraq Surge as COIN and conflated it with the Sunni Awakening. The Afghan Surge implemented that disastrous misreading as a disastrous policy.
It wasn’t entirely his fault. The perception that the United States had finally won hearts and minds in Iraq was a crucial political defense at home. But the United States had not won over the Sunnis who took part in the Awakening. Instead it provided them with leverage against the Shiites and Al Qaeda. It had worked so well not because for once their goals had become aligned with ours, not through empty talk or diplomatic manipulation, but because of the changing situation on the ground.
The United States had not defeated an insurgency. Instead it had found itself on the same side as it.
COIN had not been the answer in Iraq. It would not be the answer in Afghanistan. Instead it turned the land into a graveyard for American soldiers.
Obama’s talk of “pushing back the Taliban” was political theater. The American soldiers were there for political leverage while Hillary, Biden and Obama figured out how to seduce the Taliban into political participation while demonstrating to them that the United States was stronger and more popular than them.
The military would batter away at the incorrigible 5% of the Taliban while a deal would be cut with the other 95%. But the numbers didn’t hold up.
Obama had claimed that withdrawing from Iraq would force the Iraqis to work out their differences. It didn’t work in Iraq. By putting clear deadlines on the US presence in Afghanistan, he hoped to pressure the Afghan government into becoming desperate enough to cut a deal with the Taliban. Instead he only made the Taliban aware that they had no reason to cut a deal because they could wait him out.
Like so many peace initiatives with terrorists, the pressure used to convince another government to negotiate with the terrorists only succeeded in convincing the terrorists not to negotiate. Obama was recreating the Israeli-PLO Peace Process disaster, except that he was doing it using American, instead of Israeli, lives.
Obama and Hillary’s talk of an Afghan-led approach to reconciling with the Taliban completed the breach between the Afghan government and the US. By trying to play the middle man in a deal that no one wanted, Obama alienated the rest of the country. The US no longer had allies in Afghanistan. It only had enemies. The Green-on-Blue attacks increased dramatically. Even the people we were fighting alongside now saw Americans as the enemy.
Not only had Obama failed to turn the Taliban into friends, but he had turned friends into enemies.
Despite all the carnage, Obama had not won over the Taliban. Nor could he have. Alliances in the region are always in flux. Momentary deals could be made with small groups, but anything bigger than that would have required significant and sustained pressure. COIN precluded any real pressure and the Taliban lacked an outside threat that would have given them a reason to ally with the US.
Despite all the setbacks, Obama’s people continued to cling to the idea that trading Bowe Bergdahl for top Taliban commanders would open up the peace process. The idea was floated in 2011 and 2012 and set aside because of Republican opposition. Proponents of Taliban appeasement blamed the GOP for sabotaging the Qatar talks. They even suggested that Republicans wanted the war to drag on to damage Obama’s popularity rating.
By 2014, Obama had firmly embraced a philosophy of unilateral governance at home. He was no longer accountable to anyone and this time the deal went through.
Obama is determined to shut down the War on Terror, close Gitmo and end the War in Afghanistan before his term in office ends. He can do two out of three of those, but terrorism is in the hands of the enemy. His policies have put the initiative more firmly in the hands of a rising network of Islamist groups, some openly associated with Al Qaeda, others more ambiguously aligned with its ideas.
Meanwhile the American people have been lied to about the war and the Bergdahl deal threatens to unravel some of those lies. Obama did not recommit to Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda, as he has claimed, but to engage the Taliban. The Bergdahl deal was a last ditch effort to revive a Taliban peace process that Obama believes will finally disprove the Bush approach to terrorism.
When Obama authorized the Bin Laden operation, he did so to arrest him and put him through a civilian trial in order to dismantle Gitmo. This perverse duality characterizes his entire approach to the War on Terror. A military tactic is joined to an anti-war aim. Force is used to prove that violence doesn’t work nearly as well as diplomacy and appeasement.
This is the disastrous policy that led to everything from the Bergdahl deal to the collapse of the US effort in Afghanistan.
Obama has spent far more time thinking how to win over the Taliban than how to beat them. It’s no wonder that the Taliban have beaten him instead.