The White House is fighting back against Republican criticism over recent comments by Vice President Joe Biden that the Taliban is not America's enemy in Afghanistan, "per se." Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has seized on the remarks as an "outrageous affront to our troops" serving in the nation.
Since arguing in a Monday interview with Newsweek/The Daily Beast that "the Taliban per se is not our enemy," the vice president has been roundly criticized by Republicans who argue his assessment of foreign policy in Afghanistan is "strange" and "extraordinary."
"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," Romney said in a Tuesday statement.
"The Taliban seeks to reinstate a tyrannical government that violently rejects basic notions of human rights and oppresses minorities," he added. "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."
A spokesperson for Biden sought to clarify the vice president's remarks on Wednesday, noting that the foreign policy goal in Afghanistan has, since the U.S. sent troops were sent there following 9/11, been to defeat al Qaeda. While fighting the Taliban has sometimes been a product of that goal, the administration posits, the United States ultimately seeks to aid the reconciliation process between the Taliban and the Afghan government in an effort to foster stability and peace in the nation.
"The Vice President was not wrong to say that 'the Taliban, per se, is not our enemy,'" a Biden spokesperson said in a statement. "He was restating what has long been the Administration's core goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Politicians who criticize his remarks are either ignorant of why we are fighting in Afghanistan, or playing politics with issues of war and peace. Either way they are profoundly wrong."
According to Reuters, the Obama administration has for months been engaging in secret talks with Afghan Taliban insurgents in the hopes of ultimately leading to peace talks and ending the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. is allegedly contemplating the release of a number of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to the Afghan government in exchange confidence-building measures, possibly including the denunciation of terrorism and willingness to engage in political dialogue.
Some have questioned the wisdom of that strategy, particularly as the U.S. war in Afghanistan winds down, as a diminished American presence there could give Taliban insurgents less incentive to comply with U.S. directives.
In an appearance on Fox and Friends, Romney on Wednesday described the vice president's description as "one of the most strange comments ever to be uttered by the lips of a vice president, and this vice president in particular said some strange things."
"This is really extraordinary," he said. "I can't imagine. We are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. They are killing American soldiers. To suggest they are not our enemy is absolutely extraordinary and that kind of communication confuses our friends in Afghanistan and our friends around the world. Where in the world is this vice president coming from?"
Romney suggested that U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan - as well as Biden's apparent reticence to describe the Taliban as an "enemy" - exemplified the Obama administration's foreign policy weaknesses.
"The Obama administration continues to narrow the group of people they consider our enemies to almost a nonexistent group," he said. "We have to stand up for the kind of approach we've had under the prior president to recognize that we're going to fight jihadism around the world."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described Biden's comments as an "outrage" and an "insult" to military members and their families.
"I've been flooded with comments and tweets and comments about that from men and women who are serving in the military. And the best of all that epitomizes what the reaction of the men and women who are serving, and he says, 'Well, if they aren't the enemy, who's been shooting at us all this time?'" McCain said.
"I mean, it is unbelievable... I mean, for the Vice President of the United States to make a statement like that is an insult to the men and women today," he continued. "The vice president has some cockamamie idea that we can negotiate some kind of peace settlement with the Taliban while we are leaving. This is the most wrongheaded kind of thing that I have ever encountered."
White House press secretary Jay Carney, however, on Tuesday defended Biden's remarks, and called them "regrettable" only "when taken out of context."
"It is a simple fact that we went into Afghanistan because of the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001," Carney told reporters in a White House press briefing. "We are there now to ultimately defeat al 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 in that country. So what is also completely clear is that Afghanistan's future has to include within it reconciliation. And that's why we support the Afghan government-led effort there."